Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey last week was met with wide-ranging scepticism. It was the German Chancellor’s first visit since the failed coup of July 2016, to which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded with an uncompromising offensive of suppression and violence. Having obtained the approval of the Turkish Parliament, a referendum in April will seek to establish a new presidential system, drastically augmenting the powers of the executive. In the eyes of critics, Erdogan’s plan is but the next stage of his merciless assault on Turkey’s democratic institutions and processes.
In this heated atmosphere, Merkel’s visit was a risky venture. But the timing was not merely coincidental.
The visit, just weeks before the Turkish President seeks to acquire tremendous constitutional power, has been attacked as aiding Erdogan in realising his authoritarian objectives. With good reason, opponents have argued that Erdogan will employ Merkel’s visit to demonstrate that his seizure of power will not (as his antagonists maintain) jeopardise Turkey’s international standing. Worse, they contend that Germany’s willingness to engage with Erdogan is a cowardly act of appeasement to a would-be sultan.
One of Erdogan’s foremost detractors within Germany is Sahra Wagenknecht of the Left party (Die Linke). On Wednesday, she attacked the timing of Merkel’s visit and implored the Chancellor to stop her ‘chumminess’ with the Turkish ‘despot’. Immediately after the meeting on Thursday, Wagenknecht took to Twitter to denounce Merkel’s ‘moral bankruptcy’ in failing to press for the release of Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas, arrested in November as part of Erdogan’s post-coup clampdown. Wagenknecht’s criticisms are emblematic of the narrow path Merkel must tread: Germany has a clear responsibility to defend democratic norms, but also a unique relationship with Turkey. At home, Merkel’s relationship with Erdogan is scrutinised to a degree reserved for few other world leaders. So why is it that developments in Turkey loom so large over the German political landscape?
The origins of today’s relationship lie in the 1960s, when hundreds of thousands of Turkish 'guest workers' migrated to West Germany. Originally slated for temporary employment, many of these migrants stayed, bringing their families with them. Today, German Turks and their descendants constitute the country’s most prominent ethnic community, totalling at least four million. Events in Turkey accordingly have a direct impact in Germany, where pro- and anti- Erdogan protests are a common sight.
Largely because of this community, the German-Turkish relationship is treated with the highest importance by both sides. But it has lurched through a series of crises over the past two years, coinciding with Erdogan’s centralisation of power around himself since his move to the presidency in 2014. This crystallised most dramatically in April 2016 with the case of comedian Jan Böhmermann, whose antagonistic poem about the Turkish President fell foul of a section of the German penal code prohibiting the insulting of representatives of foreign states. Merkel’s intervention, in which she both condemned the poem and defended the prosecution of Böhmermann, was roundly attacked as a pathetic capitulation to Erdogan’s diplomatic bullying. Since then, the relationship has worsened still: a Bundestag resolution from July 2016 classifying the Ottoman Empire’s mass murder of Armenians as a genocide triggered an angry diplomatic rejoinder from Ankara, while the Turkish President has persistently denounced Germany for failing to deal with Gülenist and PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party, deemed a terrorist organisation by the EU) elements he believes it harbours. Some 40 Turkish NATO soldiers have sought asylum in Germany, fearing they may be implicated in Erdogan’s post-coup crackdown.
The last two of these matters, in particular, rumbled loudly in the background of Merkel’s visit. But beyond the rapidly changing constellations of German-Turkish relations stand two policy firmaments: the EU and refugees.
In the wake of Erdogan’s crackdown last year, European states began to advocate loudly for the temporary freezing of Turkey’s EU accession talks, which date back to 2005. In a non-binding vote in November, the European Parliament supported this resolution with a large majority. Should Turkey reintroduce the death penalty, as some have suggested, it will render itself ineligible for membership. Still, in current circumstances, this would be little more than confirmation of the fact that the will has dissipated on both sides. The upshot is that the EU can no longer credibly hold out the prospect of accession as leverage in their dealings with Turkey.
The sticking point for Ankara, meanwhile, is a visa-free agreement. Turks currently require a visa to enter the Schengen Zone, but the EU has proposed abolishing this requirement in return for some reforms to Turkey’s anti-terror laws. In normal circumstances, this would be little more than the usual toing and froing of political negotiation. But Turkey’s centrality in solving the refugee crisis that has dominated European politics for the past 16 months has made the situation markedly more complex.
The agreement signed with Turkey in early 2016 (in which Ankara agreed to accept migrants sent back from Greece) has been instrumental in stemming the flow of people from the Middle East into Europe. It has become Turkey’s bargaining chip in all dealings with Europe (especially with Germany), conferring on Erdogan a power he has proudly exploited again and again. For Merkel, though, the deal has come at a price: her domestic critics have accused her of allowing the political reprieve it has brought to render her uncritical of the Turkish President and his human rights abuses, and at a time when moral leadership is drastically needed. From Merkel’s perspective, there is a clear political imperative at play: nothing could frighten a German government seeking re-election more than the prospect of Turkey refusing to accept refugees sent back from Europe and turning a blind eye to those flowing through its own borders. This apparent dependence empowers the Turkish President. From his gleaming new presidential palace in Ankara, Erdogan is at every moment but one phone call away from propelling Europe into another crisis.
Or so he would like to think. In reality, Europe may be less dependent on Erdogan’s will than it believes. As Manuel Bewarder writes in Welt, migrant numbers are unlikely to return to the magnitude of 2015, and in any case the impact of the Turkish deal must be measured against the effects of other policies: closing the Balkan borders; restricting migrant benefits; easing deportation; limiting grounds for family reunion. Moreover, the present economic worries in Turkey grant Germany (a vital source of investment and tourism) considerable negotiating clout. In theory, this should strengthen Merkel’s position; in reality, it has only emboldened her domestic critics, who see no political payoff for her pact of silence.
Such is the background against which Merkel arrived in Ankara. Speaking on Thursday afternoon, the Chancellor stated that she and Erdogan had discussed trade relations, anti-terrorism collaboration and, most significantly in the climate of Erdogan’s referendum, the separation of powers, political opposition, press freedoms and freedom of speech – controversial matters, as she herself admitted. Stressing that 'opposition is part of a democracy', she requested that observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) be permitted to monitor the April vote, and later met with representatives from the opposition Republican People’s (CHP) and People’s Democratic Parties (HDP). For her home audience, the intention was to convey firm criticism of Erdogan through a characteristically diplomatic tone. As a NATO member and a key ally in fighting terrorism, it is essential that channels to Turkey are kept open. Germany has shown more diligence and patience on this front than many of its European partners (the visit to Turkey is Merkel’s fifth in eighteen months). But the relationship has perhaps never been so strained.
Unlike many of the burning topics in German politics right now, the relationship with Turkey does not rotate on a traditional left-right axis. Instead, it pits pragmatists against idealists, with Merkel firmly in the former camp. In recent months she has, in the name of pragmatism, eschewed the sobriquet of the liberal West’s last bastion of hope. But her dangerous dealings with Ankara’s strongman betrays such a vast deficiency of values that it risks weakening the political basis on which even a pragmatic relationship can be conducted. Predictably, the democratic platitudes uttered by Merkel on Thursday satisfied few: they antagonised her interlocutor while failing to placate those demanding a more uncompromising approach to his despotic ambitions. Even in the brutal world of Realpolitik, little of this reflects well on the Chancellor. Her characteristic devotion to diplomatic persistence has achieved much in her twelve years of office, and no doubt she believes sincerely that through these tested means she can ensure that Erdogan is acutely conscious of what his actions mean for Turkish relations with Germany and Europe. But if Merkel believes she can employ soft power, diplomacy and compromise to reverse Erdogan’s tide, she is sadly mistaken. German-Turkish relations can only deteriorate before they improve.