Berlin (GPA) – Despite some predictions that tensions between Ankara and Washington would cause Turkey to turn east for help, Erdogan’s visit to Germany tells another story.
After a several-year-long fallout with Germany, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a recent visit to several cities in the European country in an attempt to repair relations. Historically, Turkey’s greatest advocate in Europe has been Germany and with US-Turkish relations now at an all-time low, Erdogan is looking for friends.
Many people predicted that once things had gotten this bad between the West and Turkey that Ankara would begin seeking to leave the western sphere and turn east. But, instead of looking to a military powerhouse like Russia, or an alternative economic power like China it now seems Turkey is looking to re-enter the good graces of the neighboring European Union (EU) again.
Unfortunately for Turkey, this attempt to get their foot back in Germany’s door is likely to be an uphill battle. While Turkey and Germany have a long history of close ties in the Post-War period from when millions of Turks moved to Germany to help rebuild after the Nazis lost the war to more recently when Turkey was still looking to join the EU.
Yet, as Erdogan has sought to consolidate power in Turkey and regressed decades of Turkish human rights progress their relationship with Germany has run aground. Erdogan often used Germany (like the US and Israel) as a scapegoat in his political campaigns claiming that EU concerns about human rights in Turkey were meant to delegitimize the President and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). While there may be some level of truth to these claims made by Erdogan, in Berlin’s opinion his reactions to these arguments have not helped his case.
One series of events that highlights how Turkish opinion of Germany got so bad that Erdogan compared the current government in Berlin to their Nazis forebears was Turkey’s constitutional referendum campaign in 2017. This was the controversial referendum which granted Erdogan a slew of new powers by upgrading the office of the Presidency to an executive authority and limiting those of parliament and the courts.
During the campaign leading up to this controversial referendum (which only passed by a disputed 1% of the vote), Erdogan and the AKP whipped up their supporters (and thugs) wherever they were located. This means that beyond the traditional intimidation of the opposition inside Turkey, AKP goons also stirred up trouble in other countries with large populations of Turkish expatriates. Of course, one of the largest of these countries was Germany where there are nearly 4 million people of Turkish descent.
Many of these German Turks were eligible to vote in Turkey’s constitutional referendum and about 63% of them voted yes. While this doesn’t seem like it should cause problems, but much like in Turkey, many of these yes voters had a habit of attacking the opposition in the streets of Germany and other EU countries. After several of these clashes, as well as antagonistic rhetoric from Turkish politicians campaigning in favor of the referendum, rallies concerning the vote, were banned in Europe.
The blowback from Erdogan’s “yes” campaign didn’t stop there and during the days leading up to the vote, Germany also placed a freeze on arms sales to Turkey and issued a travel warning for their citizens. This led to further retaliation by Turkey and more use of Germany as a scapegoat by Erdogan as the Turkish President began blasting Berling for allowing in “political refugees” from Turkey. According to the AKP, many of these Turkish expats now residing in Germany are linked to exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen which makes them members of a “terror organization” in Turkey since the group was banned following the coup attempt of July 2016.
Since the failed coup, Turkey has sought out these alleged Gulenists wherever they were hiding. Many of the suspects were in Germany were eventually made targets of Turkish intelligence (MIT), which employed multiple illegal methods withing Germany, whether it be infiltrating the asylum system with MIT agents undercover as “translators” who would pass back information about migrants fleeing to Germany to Ankara or abusing Interpol’s “red notice” system to mark political dissenters as international fugitives.
Repairing the Turkey-Germany partnership
With all of this behind the decline in Turkish-German relations it would be reasonable to ask: can these two countries actually repair this amount of damage?
The short answer is: probably not.
While Erdogan’s visit to German is a big step following the last several years there are still some irreconcilable differences that are likely to become roadblocks. One example is the human rights situation on Turkey, where despite the end of the post-coup state of emergency, the Turkish police have continued to crack down on dissenters in the streets, pro-AKP media oligarchs censor journalists, and Erdogan himself has taken on many of his emergency powers on a permanent basis thanks to constitutional changes.
While these “human rights” complaints are likely to remain important to Germany and the EU due to Turkey’s close relations with the bloc, it seems Erdogan thinks the two countries have gotten past everything, calling his latest trip “very successful” and apparently walked away feeling good about it.
However, many in Germany might argue with this assessment following several controversial stops and comments by Erdogan. Beyond the fact that two-thirds of Germans didn’t want Erdogan to visit in the first place, even some supporters were likely not as enthusiastic about his visit. For the Germans who saw things like the Turkish President getting hostile with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier over human rights, demanding German Chancellor Angela Merkel to deliver a fresh batch of Gulenists, defending two German-Turk footballers who appeared in a photo with him they likely did not see a new beginning to the Turkey-Germany relationship.
Erdogan also attended the opening of a new mosque in Cologne which is likely to make some Germans uncomfortable due to the AKP’s ties to far-right Islamists such as the Al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood worldwide. There are also reports that during this closed-ceremony, Erdogan, under heavy guard, rejected criticism of his domestic policies.
With all of this going during a “successful trip” it is hard to see how exactly Erdogan (and Merkel for that matter) see relations between Turkey and Germany as likely to get better. Erdogan may have come put on a semi-nice face in Germany yet hasn’t changed any behavior at home. If anything, Erdogan is just now reaching the peak of his authoritarian power with most of his new powers just kicking in from the last Presidential election. This visit to Germany may have been a good show, but if Erdogan wants to stay with the west, they’re going to demand he make changes he will likely be unwilling to make. And Merkel, who may also want to keep Turkey afloat now that they’re on the outs with the US in order to avoid wider European collapse is unlikely to find German voters willing to back her. Both leaders have nowhere to go and their special relationship is likely to suffer for it.