By any measure, the German Chancellor debate between Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz last weekend was a dispiriting, monotonous affair. On irrelevant issue after irrelevant issue, both candidates spoke around each other, barely acknowledging one another's presence and finding themselves more often in agreement than in conflict. One fleeting interaction, however, has had a lasting resonance.
'If I were Chancellor,' thundered Schulz with a vehemence rarely seen in this campaign, 'I would…break off Turkey's accession talks with the European Union'. Turkey's authoritarian shift under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a particularly great source of anger in Germany, which houses a sizable Turkish minority. Erdogan's flouting of democratic norms and arbitrary incarceration of regime opponents flies in the face of the very values the European Union seeks to uphold. Every day, the official furtherance of 'accession talks' looks more and more like the hollow fiction it has long been.
Clearly, however, a threshold of patience has now been reached: Schulz's threat broke with the longstanding position of his Social Democratic Party (SPD) which, despite considerable pressure from the German left, has hitherto declined to abandon the talks. For her part, Merkel has faced a similar problem – withstanding calls from many within her conservative Union, she has insisted on the Sisyphean process of accession to the EU against a situation in which Germany and Europe would lack the political levers that negotiations offer. 'There is also 50% in Turkey who place their hopes in us,' she reminded Schulz, referring to the many groups who oppose Erdogan's power-lust and for whom EU accession remains, if not a literal ambition, then at least an instrument with which to propagandise the President's hypocrisy. But she nevertheless promised to discuss the matter with other heads of government before the EU summit on 19-20 October.
The Turkish accession talks have been arduous and slow-moving. Turkey and the EU established a customs union in 1995, followed four years later by the granting of 'candidate country' status. The negotiations proper began formally in 2005, encouraged by the then-outgoing SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. But in recent years they have stalled completely. According to the European Commission's report from November last year, of the 16 'open chapters' of negotiation, only one (concerning science and research) has been provisionally closed. On those still unopened, the EU added in March this year that it fully 'expects Turkey to respect the highest standards when it comes to democracy, rule of law, and respect of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression'. On none of these criteria is Erdogan's regime credible.
One can easily understand the frustration on the German side. According to a recent analysis by IRIN, a humanitarian news agency, some 50,000 people have been jailed in relation to last July's failed coup, many in horrendous conditions. This group includes human rights workers, journalists, academics and elected officials, arbitrarily detained on charges of 'terrorism', espionage and inciting violence. Twelve of those jailed are German nationals. The face of Die Welt journalist Deniz Yücel, a German-Turkish dual citizen held in custody in Istanbul since February, stares out from his newspaper's cover every day, adorned with the tally of days he has spent behind bars and the hashtag #FreeDeniz. In the face of appeals for the prisoners' release, Erdogan and his government have been uncompromising, accusing Germany in return of willingly harbouring terrorists and putschists. The urgency of this situation would seem to render somewhat irrelevant the more abstract question of EU membership – but in reality, the two are closely linked.
If there were any smouldering embers of faith in the willingness of Erdogan's regime to change course, they were extinguished by the astonishing rhetoric hurled back at Berlin in the debate's aftermath. Speaking to members of his own Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan branded Merkel's and Schulz's attitudes to Turkey as 'Nazism' and 'fascism', and compared the prevailing sentiments in Europe to those of the 1930s. Demanding that the Chancellor candidates 'mind [their] own business', he reiterated - without any apparent hint of irony - his instruction to Turkish-Germans not to cast votes for 'enemies of Turkey' (by which he meant the Christian Democratic, Social Democratic and Greens Parties). To cap it all off, he reaffirmed that Turkey still sought full EU membership and that it had, in fact, already met all of the necessary conditions to do so.
Erdogan's behaviour is extreme and not a little absurd. But his fanatical diatribes should not push European politicians into a rash decision born from emotional impulse alone. Aside from ceasing the accession talks, there are a number of methods which, in combination, could have a perceptible effect: the EU could abolish its customs union with Turkey, depriving the latter of easy access to its biggest export market; a travel warning could place some pressure on Turkey's vital tourism industry; the German government could refuse to supply export credit guarantees to companies doing business with Turkey. All of these would carry their own costs for Europe's economy, and would undoubtedly encourage Erdogan to intensify his victim rhetoric, with unknown political consequences. But they would also apply pressure on Ankara without sacrificing the many incentives that the accession talks present. Once terminated, talks would be off the table indefinitely.
Elections incubate hot heads. The German campaign might be remarkable for its robotic normality, but it is hardly the appropriate sober forum for solving a problem of such complexity and consequence for Europe as a whole. Merkel hinted at this during the debate itself, telling Schulz that she had no intention of 'breaking off the diplomatic relationship with Turkey just because in an election campaign we have to outdo one another a little'. In other words, tough talk with Erdogan, however genuine the frustrations it expresses, is just campaign bluster. No doubt Merkel's new approach to the accession talks will gratify both her left-wing opponents and the right-wing critics within her Union. But it would not be in the least bit surprising were she to tactfully withdraw the threat after the election on 24 September, citing the complications of drawing unanimity from her European partners (among others, French President Emmanuel Macron has already expressed his disapproval of the idea).
Whatever the outcome, it would be utterly self-defeating were the EU to isolate the opposition within Turkey itself. As Öztürk Yilmaz, a spokesperson for the Kemalist Republican People's Party (CHP), Turkey's largest opposition party, put it, Merkel and Schulz have already 'fallen into [Erdogan's] trap' by responding to his provocations. Terminating the accession process completely would represent an enormous betrayal of the many pro-European Turks who have placed great hopes in the EU to curb abuses at home. Neither Erdogan nor his opponents would forget that in a hurry.