Tuesday, 15 November 2016 21:33

Why Turkey and Germany need each other

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Photo: World Humanitarian Summit (flickr); Licence: CC BY-ND 2.0

On July, 15th a group of military officials unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the Islamic-conservative AKP-government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan which left 265 people dead. In the aftermath of these events, the Turkish government has declared a state of emergency and demands the extradition of the oppositional preacher Fetullah Gülen from the United States who is the alleged mastermind of the coup. Since then, the Turkish government has officially detained about 26,000 alleged Gülen-supporters. Moreover, several media channels lost their license, schools were shut down, and Erdoğan considered the reintroduction of the death penalty. 

In response to this suggestion, Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU High Representative Federica Mogherini ruled out the possibility of a country that reintroduces the death penalty to become a member of the Union. Afterwards, the Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım distanced himself from this proposal. Nevertheless, the relationship between Turkey and the EU remains strained. Germany in particular has been struggling to find a coherent strategy to deal with the authoritarian developments in Turkey as the following analysis will show. Partly due to the German guest worker policy in the 1950s, there are now about three million people of Turkish descent living in Germany, which is the basis for a traditionally close alliance between both Germany and Turkey and which makes it worth taking a look at the current state of the German-Turkish relations.

Germany’s influence in the EU-Turkey membership negotiations 

Turkey gained official candidacy status for an EU-membership in 1999 after more than a decade had passed since its initial application. The main interest of Turkey has been the access to the European single market that would bring tremendous economic benefits with the prospect of European investments and work mobility for its citizens. Furthermore, an EU-membership would cement the path towards modernity for the country as envisaged by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of the Turkish Republic. If Turkey is still regarded as a nation between the West and the Middle East with the Bosporus that connects both worlds, then an EU-membership would confirm its preferred cultural and political adherence to a modern Europe rather than to the unstable Middle East.   

A key ally in Turkey’s efforts to become a member state has been Germany. As Germany is the biggest country in the EU with about 80 million people as well as its founding father and uncontested economic leader, its influence is vital in the membership negotiations. From 2005 onwards, the German centre-left coalition under Chancellor Schröder was a driving force behind the beginning of the official negotiations in 2005. With the rise of Angela Merkel from the conservative Christian Democratic Union, however, Germany became less enthusiastic about Turkey’s accession to the EU. Reasons for this shift were Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge Cyprus, the systematic discrimination against Kurds, and irregularities in the abolition of torture that received increased media attention. Moreover, there were also ideological factors that played an important role in Merkel’s reluctance. As the CDU generally centres the European discourse not only on economic benefits but also on culture and identity, the Islamic and Middle Eastern tradition in Turkey were seen as an incoherence in the common history of EU member states at that time. The new German government therefore slowed down the membership negotiations insisting on a ‘privileged partnership’ instead. 

The importance of the EU-Turkey deal for Germany 

If Turkey needs the support of Germany, then the power structure has increasingly inversed: as a close alliance with Turkey was key to handling the refugee crisis, Merkel made a U-turn in her policy towards a EU-membership. The turning point was the events on New Year’s Eve in Cologne when her Willkommenspolitik towards refugees came under fire and the far-right experienced another boost of approval. As Turkey is the gateway to Europe for many refugees, Merkel struck a deal with Erdoğan in March: for each illegal Syrian refugee Turkey takes back from Greece, they can send another one legally. In return, Turkish citizens shall receive visa-free access to the EU and the negotiations about a possible membership will be accelerated. This deal was heavily criticised for undermining European values by the German media and the opposition shortly after the revelations by the convicted oppositional ‘Cumhuriyet’-journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül that Erdoğan backs Islamists in Syria. 

Even though the deal with Turkey demonstrated political unity between both countries, their relationship began to crumble when German satirists ridiculed Erdoğan’s attitude towards journalists on TV. The publication of a smear poem by the satirist Jan Böhmermann in March eventually became a state affair. In his poem, Böhmermann insulted Erdoğan. The Turkish President thereupon laid a criminal complaint against Böhmermann which needed the authorisation of the German government. Merkel authorised the lawsuit declaring that Böhmermann’s poem 'intentionally hurtful' and that she does not want to 'interfere in the German jurisdiction'. Her refusal to reject the lawsuit and to demonstrate solidarity with Erdoğan was therefore the result of her fear to lose the deal with Turkey she desperately needs to prevent further losses to the far-right in the parliamentary elections 2017.  

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Photo: dierk schaefer (flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0

The Turkish youth in Germany 

The ties between Turkey and Germany also have an impact on the large Turkish community in Germany. The coup rekindled the debate on the national identity of citizens with a Turkish background, especially the second and third generation, when the pro-AKP Union of European-Turkish Democrats organised a demonstration in Cologne in July to support the Turkish President. The demonstration attracted about 30,000 participants, many of them young people, as well as a counter-protest by youth organisations of German parties with about 1,200 people. The approval Erdoğan enjoys among people of Turkish origin in Germany has made politicians and journalists across the political spectrum doubt their loyalty to the German Constitution and question the efficiency of dual citizenship. The problem, however, is that these critics do not distinguish between the different political opinions that exist in the German-Turkish community. First of all, many of them reject the anti-democratic developments in Turkey. Secondly, those who support Erdoğan often quote the economic progress of the country over the past decade rather than his conservative values. Furthermore, if there is a tendency that young people of Turkish origin in particular feel closer bonds with Turkey than Germany, then one should rethink the integration policy. Especially the principle of blood right in the German tradition of national identity has been obstructive in acknowledging that at least those who were born and raised there are also German regardless of their parents. It hence does not come as a surprise that the vast majority of the German-Turkish community votes for the left or centre-left, both long-time advocates for a more inclusive approach to immigration including the birth right and dual citizenship. If one wants to relate the German-Turkish alliance to national identity, the alternate conclusion could therefore be that the introduction of the birth right in 2000 and dual citizenship in 2014 simply came too late to welcome these children as full members of German society without opposing it to their Turkish roots. 

The German-Turkish relations on an international level 

Besides the fact that the German-Turkish alliance is significant for the countries themselves, the international community, too, has an interest in a strong cooperation. Turkey as a member of the NATO allows the anti-ISIS coalition to use the Incirlik Air Base for its military operations in Syria where Germany provides military personnel without any combat roles. The Air Base became the apple of discord in June after the German parliament had passed a motion in which it officially acknowledges the Armenian genocide and apologises for its complicity in the atrocities through its alliance with the Ottoman Empire. Since Turkey still denies the genocide, Erdoğan was outraged. He called the German MPs of Turkish origin who voted for the motion an ‘extended arm’ of terrorists from the Kurdish Worker’s Party and called for a ‘blood’ test to see whether they are actually of Turkish ethnicity. Furthermore, the Turkish government denied German politicians the visit of their troops that are positioned on the Air Base. Since the use of an alternative Air Base in Jordan and Cyprus would complicate the exchange of information with other allies, Merkel once again appeased Erdoğan by declaring that the German government distances itself from the decision of the parliament to pass the motion. Turkey, on the other hand, will now let German politicians visit the troops again. The row over the Armenia motion hence showed that the ruptures in the German-Turkish relations are also detrimental to international cooperation and would affect the military intervention in Syria. 


The events over the past few months have shown more than ever that Germany and Turkey need each other. At last, political conflicts between Germany and Turkey directly affect the sensitive question of national identity of the Turkish community in Germany. Both countries hence need to maintain positive diplomatic ties even in times of political disagreement. Nevertheless, they also have to consider the bigger picture outside their national interests. Especially since the EU is already subject to internal turmoil with the Brexit and the rise of the far-right, it is important that the Union does not make any hasty decisions with regards to a possible membership of Turkey. Meanwhile, Turkey, too, could use the current disruptions as an opportunity to reflect upon what is at stake, if the country further diverts from European values.

Last modified on Friday, 09 December 2016 10:00
Sarah Bahengam

Sarah Bahengam is a German-Iranian student at University College London where she finished her undergraduate degree in French and Russian in summer 2016 and where she will continue with a Master's in Global Migration. Her main political interests are immigration, national identity, and the far-right in Europe.

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