Meeting Erdogan Merkel Presses Turkey on Free Speech

In her first visit to Turkey since the failed military coup in July, Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to ensure freedom of press and the separation of powers ahead of a controversial referendum.
The relationship between Chancelor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has seen better days.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, after meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Thursday, warned of the need to respect freedom of press and the separation of powers, as the country enters a critical phase of acting on July’s military coup and debating a controversial constitutional reform to move to a presidential system.

“Opposition is part of a democracy,” Ms. Merkel said in a terse press conference with Mr. Erdogan after talks that lasted two and a half hours.

Mr. Merkel also planned to meet with representatives of the largest opposition party in the Turkish parliament, the center-left Republican People's Party, abbreviated CHP, as well as the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP.

Since the coup, the Turkish government has been cracking down on critical journalists and politicians in parties opposed to Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Relations between the two countries have deteriorated noticeably since the attempted military takeover.

Ankara has repeatedly accused Berlin of little solidarity and of giving refuge to supporters of the Turkish preacher and former imam, Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkish officials claim instigated the putsch. Mr. Erdogan has also vented his frustration on several occasions over Mr. Merkel’s refusal to hand over the former opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper’s editor-in-chief Can Dundar, who escaped after the coup.

Mr. Dunbar has since founded a new anti-Erdogan news portal in Germany and met with President Joachim Gauck, among other high-ranking German officials.

Opposition is part of a democracy. Angela Merkel, German Chancellor

Mr. Erdogan rejected claims that the presidential system he seeks would end the separation of powers.

"There's not an ounce of truth to this," he said. "There's a legislative organ, an executive one and a judiciary."

Mr. Erdogan defended the planned presidential system, claiming the executive branch needs to be able to “make decisions faster.”

Critics claim the president's plan would create a one-man rule, effectively giving the president dictator status.

Ms. Merkel urged for independent experts from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, to observe the constitutional referendum over the presidential system.

Ahead of her visit, however, the chancellor was being criticized by Turkish opposition parties for timing her visit shortly before the referendum, in what could be viewed as support for Mr. Erdogan.

The Turkish president said his discussion with the German leader included how the two NATO member states could work toward achieving regional stability and combating international terrorism.

Anti-riot police stand guard outside the Turkish parliament to prevent demonstrations as lawmakers gather to debate proposed constitutional changes in Ankara on January 9, 2017.

Ahead of Ms. Merkel's visit, Fikri Işık, Turkey’s defense minister, demanded that Germany reject the applications for asylum by dozens of Turkish NATO soldiers stationed in Germany. The soldiers are accused of being part of an organization that is blamed for the attempted coup in July 2016.

Granting the applications "would lead to very serious consequences," the defense minister warned. His demand added new fuel to the Turkish-German relations, which are already under a lot of heat.

Also before the visit, Mustafa Yeneroğlu, a member of the ruling AKP party, demanded that Turks receive visa freedom within the E.U., as promised under the refugee deal. "Now it's Europe's turn to fulfill its promise from the refugee deal," he said.

I do not envy her for this visit. Winfried Kretschmann, Prime Minister, Baden-Württemberg

It was no easy meeting for the chancellor. "I do not envy her for this visit," said Baden-Württemberg's Prime Minister Winfried Kretschmann, a member of the Green Party.

The chancellor stepped on Turkish territory for the last time 10 months ago. In April 2016, she visited Kilis on the Syrian border, a city that became a hotspot in the Syrian refugee crisis. At that time, a defamatory poem about Mr. Erdogan by comedian Jan Böhmermann weighed on German-Turkish relationships.

Prior to that, during her visit in October 2015, shortly ahead of a major election, she was reproached for strengthening Mr. Erdogan domestically with her appearance. On the eve of the chancellor's visit, Mr. Erdogan called on Europe to declare its solidarity with his conservative AKP party.

During the visit, Ms. Merkel was able to wrestle the refugee pact from the Turkish president. The deal cost the E.U. billions of euros, but the number of people seeking protection who tried to get to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea subsequently fell.

This time around, critics again condemned the timimg of Ms. Merkel's visit to Ankara - two months ahead of the constitutional referendum that Mr. Erdogan wants to use to strengthen his power and weaken the opposition, as well as supervisory authorities.

"Merkel's trip to Turkey is indeed headlined as a working visit, but it should be clear to everyone that Erdogan will claim this visit as support for the upcoming referendum,” Germany's Green Party leader Cem Özdemir is quoted as saying by two regional German papers. The chancellor must meet demonstratively with opposition forces, Mr. Özdemir, who is of Turkish origin, said. Mr. Seibert, the government spokesman, rejected the claim of election assistance.

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The Turkish government must carefully weigh the price at which it wants to guarantee the country’s safety, Erol Bilecik, the head of the Turkish business association Tüsiad, said in an interview ahead of the visit.

Cash flow in emerging markets will decline in the coming years, accoring to Mr. Bilecik. “Turkey needs foreign capital to finance investments and sustain growth,” he said, adding the government must therefore be very clear and transparent in terms of its economic policies.

But Ms. Merkel is also seen by some as the last spokesperson for the liberal world who takes on politicians of Mr. Erdogan's caliber.

"She has to walk the tightrope of not endangering the refugee deal and at the same time stand up for democratic values in the face of the Turkish government's actions in its own country," warned Moira Goff-Taylor, a national security fellow at the Wilson Center.


Ozan Demircan is a Handelsblatt correspondent, formerly based in Turkey but currently based in Switzerland,  John Blau is a senior editor for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]