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What’s behind Germany’s special relationship with Turkey?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech as he attends the delivery ceremony of New Naval Systems at Tuzla Desan Shipyard in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Tur Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images - Credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Germany’s response to the crisis involving fellow EU member Greece and Turkey has put a spotlight on the complex relationship between Berlin and Ankara, says CATHRIN SCHAER.

The German chancellor has been called a lot of names over the years. Germans often refer to Angela Merkel as ‘Mutti’, or ‘mummy’. The French have been known to call her ‘Angie’. She has also been described as the ‘queen of Europe’, ‘Mrs Nein’, ‘the climate chancellor’ and, more often lately, ‘leader of the free world’.

Soon though, the longstanding German leader may find that another nickname becomes more widely known: ‘the Erdogan whisperer’.

‘That is how she is seen here,’ says Kristian Brakel, who heads the Istanbul office of the left-leaning Heinrich Böll Foundation. ‘She is somebody he [Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan] has to listen to.’

The fact that Erdogan listens to Merkel is about more than the German’s non-threatening diplomatic style. Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian leader pays attention to Germany’s Mutti because of the country’s special relationship with Turkey.

‘There is no other country that Turkey has such a relationship with, and on so many different levels,’ continues Brakel, who has been heading his foundation’s office in Istanbul for the past five years and observing Turkish affairs for almost 20.

‘For Turkey, what is said in Berlin is more relevant than what is said in Brussels. Although,’ he cautions, ‘that [special relationship] is not always taken quite as seriously in Germany as it is here.’

‘Our special relationship with Turkey – unequalled in intensity and duration by any other European country – goes back to the beginning of the modern age,’ German foreign policy expert, Constanze Stelzenmüller, wrote in an essay. Germany is Turkey’s most important trading partner, the top destination for Turkish exports and, if not for energy deals with Russia, Germany would be Turkey’s biggest importer too.

Trade between the two countries totalled around 35.4 billion euros in 2019, with the trade balance in Germany’s favour to the tune of almost four billion. Germany is also one of the top investors inside Turkey with companies like BASF, Siemens, Volkswagen and Daimler all setting up shop there.

Germany is also home to an estimated four million locals of Turkish descent, thanks to migration that began in the 1960s; that’s the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey.

More recently Germany has played a major role in Turkey’s international affairs, firstly as a prime mover in stalling its attempt to become an official member of the European Union and then, more recently in the forging of the still-controversial immigration deal which sees Turkey – often described as the bridge between Europe and the Middle East – keeping migrants and asylum seekers at bay, at Europe’s outermost borders.

It’s never been an easy relationship and thanks to Turkey’s increasingly assertive – some call it aggressive, others argue that it is defensive – foreign policy, as well as Erdogan’s progressively more authoritarian behaviour after the 2016 coup attempt, it’s getting trickier all the time.

Part of the former includes the tense situation in the eastern Mediterranean, which saw Greek and Turkish ships collide, in the latest in a long, historical line of Greek-Turkish skirmishes. As international relations expert Michaël Tanchum wrote for Foreign Policy magazine recently about the EU’s reaction to this: ‘The six Mediterranean EU countries are evenly split. Greece, Cyprus, and France advocate strong action against Turkey while Italy, Malta, and Spain – which all share significant commercial interests with Turkey – have refrained. Germany, holding the EU presidency since July, could break the deadlock,’ he suggested.

Yet somehow, that isn’t happening – at least, not yet. And it’s really annoying some of the neighbours. ‘Frau Merkel is an ally of the sultan!,’ was the outraged headline in one nationalist Greek publication, Dimokratia.

It was no coincidence that the Turkish provocations were happening just as Germany took over the European council presidency, the article continued.

‘If we really had a special relationship with Germany, then the chancellor should have given us her full support against Turkey’s aggressiveness and Islamist expansionism,’ op-ed writer, Jean-Loup Bonnamy, complained in French daily, Le Figaro.

‘What has counted the most in the [eastern Mediterranean] crisis is Germany’s exceedingly low profile,’ François Heisbourg, senior adviser for Europe at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, tweeted. Writing in the Guardian, foreign affairs commentator Simon Tisdall contrasted the EU’s reactions to elections in Belarus and the Mediterranean maritime fracas: ‘Unlike Belarus, [Turkey] has real strategic importance,’ he wrote. ‘Perhaps that explains the awkward silence of many governments, including the UK’s. It does not excuse it.’

Then again, Germany probably has better excuses than most. ‘Germany is in a bind here,’ the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Brakel says. ‘It has this influence on Turkey but, because of the multi-faceted relationship it has, it is also much more vulnerable than other EU members and has more to lose.’

The vulnerabilities are the same things that have brought the two countries so close: money, migration and strategic military ties.

Over the past two decades, the Turkish economy has boomed. Even so, Turkey still needs Germany, more than Germany needs Turkey.

In 2019, Turkey ranked 17th in Germany’s list of trading partners. However, as Brakel points out, often there is also significant political pressure coming from those major German companies who have based themselves in Turkey, and who German politicians listen to.

Germany also holds an economic ace, in the form of planned negotiations over the customs union, first established in 1995, that Turkey and the EU have agreed to.

This union was to be modernised and could have added billions in EU trade to Turkey’s economy. Talks have stalled due to increased political tensions since the attempted coup in Ankara in 2016.

‘For years, Turkey has lusted after an extension of the customs union – and the key to that lies in Berlin,’ wrote Die Zeit author, Özlem Topçu. ‘Nobody wants to simply gift that to the autocratic Erdogan [because it would make him look good].’ But maybe it’s a price worth paying, she argued, if he could be persuaded to stick to international maritime law.

Then there’s the Turkish diaspora inside Germany. Like any other residents, Turkish-Germans vote for different parties, which dilutes any obvious electoral impact they might have on the federal government. Many second- or third-generation Turkish-Germans don’t approve of Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism, so wouldn’t necessarily be pushing to defend him. But there’s no doubt that they drive the debate inside the country and, as a result, ‘there’s not a single politician in Germany who doesn’t have an opinion on Turkey,’ Brakel argues.

After concluding the European immigration deal, Turkey has also managed to haunt Germany with the spectre of asylum seekers desperate to reach northern Europe. ‘Since that deal, Ankara has been in more of a position of strength,’ Kadri Tastan, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund, or GMF, based in Brussels, explains. ‘It’s given them huge leverage over the EU and they’ve been using that tool quite effectively.’

‘The problems [with migration] are overstated but German politicians still attribute a lot of relevance to the topic,’ Brakel concurs. Ongoing media attention on migration and the political upheavals that followed the 2015 acceptance of close to a million asylum seekers – including the rise of the far right in Germany – mean that German politicians are unusually sensitive to those Turkish threats.

Attitudes in the German-Turkish relationship have also been altered by geopolitics in general.

During the Cold War, Turkey felt threatened and saw itself as part of the Western alliance, Brakel explains. But now, the country is acting on the assumption of a multi-polar world order, playing the US off against Russia, and reacting to events depending on what’s best for Turkey, he says: They want to be part of NATO, but NATO shouldn’t rely on them is the message.

‘The weakening of US hegemony, the dissolution of clear power relationships within NATO, the economic rise of China and Russia’s military insubordination, as well as the refugee and migration movements from the Middle East, mean that Turkey has more room to manoeuvre in its foreign policy toward both Germany and the EU,’ says Yasar Aydin, a Hamburg-based expert on foreign relations with Turkey. ‘It allows Ankara to act more offensively toward Berlin.’

Still, if the shooting actually started in the eastern Mediterranean – say, the Turks fire on a Greek or French warship, as reportedly almost happened in June – one would imagine that not even their special relationship would prevent the Germans from taking a harder line.

But nobody in Germany thinks it will come to that. The dissonance between the two countries over issues like human rights, democratic norms and aggressive foreign policy, is peaking. Still, most Germans analysts seem to believe patience, dialogue and diplomacy are required.

Before visiting both Ankara and Athens earlier this week, German foreign minister Heiko Maas stressed the fact that Turkey was of ‘strategic importance’ and wouldn’t be drawn on the possibility of sanctions.

Contrary to what some critics are saying, that’s not German ‘cowardice’, Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer for German and European Studies at King’s College London, argued on social media. It’s just Germany’s style.

‘Emphasis on dialogue slows down German responses,’ Clarkson continued, ‘but is crucial to sustaining consensus for confrontation, if a state that is pushing against the EU system burns down all off-ramps that Berlin offers it.’ In an editorial earlier this month, Mark Leonard, director of the think tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations, also advocated for more mediation: ‘Turkey is not yet a new Russia,’ he warned, ‘but it could become one if the situation is mishandled.’

‘We should keep the dialogue going,’ Tastan, of the GMF, concludes. ‘Turkey does have a point but the way in which it is bringing its business into the international arena is a problem. Greece and Cyprus are trying to make this a European problem. EU solidarity is important – but they need to be careful. That’s why it’s up to other EU countries to start a dialogue. That’s why what Germany is doing is a good thing. I hope it works.’

‘Getting Turkey to the table won’t be hard,’ Brakel theorises. ‘They know what they want and they know they can only get that through negotiation. They actually want somebody to step in and mediate, to pressure the Greeks into concessions.’ And, he says, as uncomfortable as it will be, Germany, with its ‘Erdogan whisperer’, is still the most likely interlocutor.

A lot of the German-Turkish relationship comes down to psychology, the Istanbul-based analyst concludes: ‘It’s a bit like an old couple, who have been married for a long time,’ he says. ‘They don’t love each other anymore. But getting a divorce would just be way too costly.’

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