Turkey - Germany Shake Hands with Europe’s Step-Child

First Germany wasn’t willing to deal with Turkey, then it was the other way around. Now both countries need to come together at a decisive time for Europe.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Ankara, Turkey.


As so often in global politics, something that is right and important has happened at the worst conceivable time.

The refugee crisis has finally forced Europe to focus on Turkey, a country that it has treated like an unloved stepchild for years.

It's a new and perhaps historic situation. At the same moment that President Tayyip Erdoğan cracks down on freedoms, the European Union must achieve closer ties with Turkey.

Indeed, it's compelled to wish for a strong and stable Turkey and to believe that this precarious moment is the right time for rapprochement.

For a long time, Europeans made things easy for themselves: Turkey was Syria’s neighbor, and the civil war and refugees were Turkey’s problem.

But ever since desperate asylum seekers started streaming across the sea and through the Balkans, they quickly became Europe’s problem, especially for Germany and other prosperous member states.

Now many politicians are finally realizing the hard truth: Between Syria and the European Union, there is only Turkey.

Now many politicians are finally realizing the hard truth: Between Syria and the European Union, there's only Turkey.

Germany’s chancellor understands this. In fact, the refugee issue has become so critical that a positive agreement with Turkey at the E.U. summit on Monday is possibly more important for Angela Merkel than three crucial state elections later this month.

But the history of Turkey’s connection to the West is long, complex and rich with unrequited love.

Turkey was never taken seriously as a future member of the European Union, but always as a dependable NATO partner. The young republic managed to stay out of World War II. But in the decades after, as East and West sank into Cold War, Turkey sought and quickly found a role alongside the West and the United States – and against the Soviet Union.

The founders of the Turkish republic were firmly resolved to enter the ranks of Western nations. Its founding father, Kemal Atatürk, proclaimed that Turkey should look to the West and not get involved in the Middle East that it borders.

The East represented the past and fallen Ottoman Empire. The West was the future. After World War II, Turkey followed the Americans almost unconditionally. The guideline bequeathed by Atatürk’s foreign policy was “peace in the homeland, peace in the world.”

Turkey’s relationship with the European Union was not nearly as easy as its admission to the NATO military alliance. The dream of membership began in 1963 with a treaty of association with the E.U. predecessor, the European Economic Community.

Turkey then experienced a series of humiliations. Its first application for membership was rejected in 1989. Ten years later, the European Union reversed its position and opened negotiations for admission.

The next setback came in 2009, when the newest E.U. member, Cyprus, used its veto to block further negotiations with Ankara. The island nation’s Greek sector had quarreled with Turkey for decades.

But the main problem was that modern Turkey always approached democracy by taking two steps forward and then one (or two) steps backward.

The country has had four military coups since it was founded after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse following World War I. The pattern was always the same: When the country had granted a little more freedom, its representatives grew afraid of the citizens.

The first freely elected prime minister, Adnan Menderes, a divisive figure, ended up on the gallows — and then a magnificent mausoleum was built for him. In that way, every new advance in freedom was followed by regression, followed by another leap... and the next relapse.

For more than 50 years now, the same question has been asked: When will Turkish democracy be ready for E.U. membership? There have been more bad then better times. At the moment, they are significantly worse, but the chances for compromise have never been greater.

The German chancellor takes up her role at exactly this point. In contrast to her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, the head of the conservative Christian Democratic Union has always opposed admitting Turkey to the European Union.

A decade ago Ms. Merkel stood with her back to Turkey as the current president and then prime minister, Mr. Erdoğan, moved to rapidly modernize and democratize his country. She also kept her distance to the Turkish “guest workers,” the largest ethnic minority in Germany. It simply wasn’t her world.

All the time, Mr. Erdoğan filled auditoriums in Germany and was celebrated like a pop star by “his” people in Cologne, Düsseldorf or Berlin. But Ms. Merkel disregarded the German Turks and their homeland. This limited her maneuvering room in both domestic and geopolitical terms.

Now the new arrivals have provided the previous immigrants with an unexpected upgrade. There is scarcely any more talk of problems in integrating German Turks, which yesterday seemed so massive. On the contrary, the “old” immigrants might be the main resource for integrating the “new” ones.

Only a few years ago, Mr. Erdoğan still presented his charming side. He seemed to schmooze up to the chancellor on each successive visit. The Turkish politician was the star of the Middle East who was breaking one political taboo after another in his country. He even initiated a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which it regards as a terrorist organization.

His “we belong together,” spoken in faltering German, has not been forgotten. He had learned the sentence by heart for the 50th anniversary of the German-Turkish recruitment agreement.

The Turks are now supposed to rescue a political and economic bloc that has refused them membership for so long — and also to save a German chancellor who once was so lukewarm toward Turkey.

Ms. Merkel, meanwhile, never refrained from citing only a “privileged partnership” for Turkey, which she preferred to full membership. She kept Mr. Erdoğan at arm’s length and hence also his country. Then he distanced himself.

That was before the refugee issue.

Now these two political leaders have to find their way to each other. The illusion that they don’t need each other seems to have dissolved. For Ms. Merkel, Turkey is more important than some E.U. members. Mr. Erdoğan and his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, are more helpful dialogue partners than people like Victor Orbán, the head of a Hungarian government that has bid farewell to European solidarity.

A deal with the European Union could look like this: Serious negotiations on admitting Turkey, in addition to visa-free travel, in return for cooperation on the topic of refugees.

The Turks are now supposed to rescue a political and economic bloc that has refused them membership for so long — and also to save a German chancellor who once was so lukewarm toward Turkey. What an irony of history.

But there’s one big problem: the domestic situation in Turkey.

If at the Brussels summit Ms. Merkel achieves a binding agreement that is favorable from a European-German perspective — if it holds and the numbers of refugees decline — then the conclusion in Europe will be that tough wrangling with Turkey was worth it.

But if the Turkish government proves to be an unreliable partner — and and the influx of refugees is not reduced — then many will recall previous threats from the Turkish presidential palace, when Mr. Erdoğan warned that “the doors could be opened,” refugees packed on buses and wished “a good journey.”

It was Europe itself that left this moral position to the Turkish government. The Turkish president was irritated by the E.U. promise of €3 billion ($3.26 billion) to limit the flow of refugees, an embarrassingly meager amount in view of the challenges his country faces.

Even if Turkey does not yet envision integrating refugees by the German model, it has nonetheless taken in people in distress and, according to its own figures, spent around three times as much money on them as it is now being offered.

Turkey has acted in a more European manner toward the refugees than Europe itself, even if not out of pure charity but for strategic reasons. For the people on the receiving end, that doesn’t matter.

The Turkish government feels strong in this issue. Its position always grows stronger when Brussels makes demands, as it did recently when people began fleeing Aleppo in the direction of the closed Turkish border. At the time, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, reminded the Turks of their “moral and legal obligation” to take in those seeking protection. But the fact is: Turkey has already taken in 2.5 million Syrians.

It can often be heard these days that the European Union must not allow itself to be blackmailed by Turkey. But considering the country's geostrategic situation, perhaps Turkey doesn't have quite so much room for maneuver.

Ever since Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet, Vladimir Putin has been on a confrontation course with Ankara. Russia now also supports the Kurds from the Democratic Union Party in Syria, who are setting up an autonomous region along the border to Turkey. It is a nightmare for the Turkish government, which views the Syrian Kurds as a terrorist force.

The Syrian Kurds are also bringing Turkey into opposition with the United States, which sees the militia as the most important ground troops in the fight against the Islamic State.

So Turkey has much to gain at the upcoming summit, while the German chancellor has much to lose. If things don’t go well, some Germans will say Angela Merkel sold out our values. She remained silent on the violation of human rights and suppression of freedoms in order to push through her “dirty deal,” critics will say.




In Turkey, the opposition and critics of the government are already saying that. But they are not the ones the German chancellor is meeting with.

Yet there would be some things to discuss. For example, there is renewed fighting in southeastern Turkey between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

In this conflict, not only combatants, policemen and soldiers are dying, but also hundreds of civilians including many children. Thousands have become internal refugees who suffer hunger and lack of medical attention. It seems that neither side cares about them.

And then there’s unparalleled pressure on journalists in Turkey, in addition to an eroding separation of powers. The editor in chief and Ankara correspondent for the Cumhuriyet newspaper, which has been critical of the government, were imprisoned for three months. The government said they betrayed state secrets in reports about weapons being transported to Syria by the Turkish secret service. The constitutional court ruled that their detention was a violation of freedom of the press, but Mr. Erdoğan said he didn’t recognize the highest court’s authority.

Campaigns of hate and harassment are also routinely conducted against political opponents by government-friendly media. Recently, investigations were initiated against hundreds of academics who had signed a “Call For Peace.” In a resolute tone, they had called for an end to the fighting in the southeast of the country: “We don't want to be a part of this guilt.”

So today Turkey is deeply divided. There has always been much distrust and a constant fear about the “unity of the state,” which is said to be endangered by the intrigues of “foreign powers.” Unfortunately, minorities are often victims of this paranoid political discourse.

Eyüp Burç is head of programming at İMC TV, an independent, pro-Kurdish news broadcaster that is one of the few to report about the situation in the southeast of the country without adhering to the government’s line.

He recently noted that “of course the European Union, Germany and Turkey must cooperate regarding the refugee issue.” But Chancellor. Merkel is being held “hostage” by the crisis, he said.

Mr. Burç and others like him are disappointed by Europe. They believe that Germany cannot keep silent about problems inside Turkey today, just to get a deal to limit refugees.

“Europe fought for its values for a long time,” said Mr. Burç. “They should not be negotiable now.”


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]