Rising tension in relations between Berlin and Ankara
German citizen Peter Steudner was arrested in Istanbul on July 5 for supporting an “unspecified” terrorist organization, together with 10 Turks. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel interrupted his holiday to return to Berlin and send a strong message to Ankara in reaction to the arrest. This news did not come out of the blue, it has been building steadily for a few years.
Relations seemed to be more or less on track when German Chancellor Angela Merkel was able to strike a deal with Turkey in March 2016 on the Syrian refugee issue. It was opposed by many EU leaders, but they finally agreed to accept it. The escalation started after that.
Germany’s Parliament adopted in June 2016 a resolution that refers to the Ottoman resettlement of Armenians in 1915 as genocide. Furthermore, Berlin refused to allow Turkish MPs to hold rallies in Germany to seek support for the constitutional referendum held in April 2017.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s description of this as “Nazi practices” was harshly criticized by German politicians. Ankara reacted by not allowing German MPs to visit German soldiers stationed in Turkey’s Incirlik air base. Berlin responded by transferring them to Jordan. The transfer is still underway.
The strong message conveyed by Gabriel over Steudner’s arrest gives the impression that this time the situation is more serious. The statement is harsher than previous ones by German politicians. Gabriel referred to “a reassessment of Germany’s Turkey policy,” adding: “We need a change in policy in order to prevent making a laughing stock of ourselves, even if it comes at a price.”
The price will be high for both countries. Gabriel said Hermes export credit guarantees should be capped and credit from the European Bank of Investment should be stopped. This is a major blow to Ankara, which is in dire need of foreign direct investment. Germany is Turkey’s most important trade partner, with a volume of €37 billion ($43 billion). German investments in Turkey amount to €12 billion per year.
Gabriel discouraged German businessmen from investing in Turkey by saying: “Politically motivated arbitrary expropriations are not only a threat, but have actually occurred.” He also said he will propose a revision of €4.45 billion of EU support to Turkey for the period 2016-2020.
Berlin issued a heightened travel warning for Turkey. The number of German tourists visiting the country has already plummeted from 5.6 million in 2015 to 3.6 million in 2016. Any further decrease will negatively affect Turkey’s balance of payments.
Relations seemed to be more or less on track when German Chancellor Angela Merkel was able to strike a deal with Turkey in March 2016 on the Syrian refugee issue.
Germany will also be affected by these measures. German businessmen were investing in Turkey because they found it profitable. Now they will have to move to less profitable countries. But Turkey is likely to suffer more from this deterioration because it has fewer options than Germany.
Another issue that will negatively affect both sides is the Syrian refugee deal, which is linked to negotiations on a customs union deal. In exchange for Turkish efforts to restrict the Syrian refugee flow toward EU countries, the bloc was going to hold talks on the customs union deal that Turkey had signed in the 1990s.
This is a unique agreement because while certain countries postponed their entry in the customs union to a later date after they joined the EU, Turkey signed it beforehand. Gabriel said he “can’t imagine there will be negotiations over the expansion of the customs union.” If these talks are not held, Turkey will be justified in relaxing controls on the flow of refugees, with consequences for the deal that Merkel worked so hard to clinch.
There is also the question of 2.9 million German citizens of Turkish origin. They will face an unpleasant dilemma between their allegiance to their new motherland and their former one. To alleviate their worry, Gabriel published in the German press a statement in Turkish and German, explaining why Berlin had to reassess its Turkey policy.
This tension between two major NATO allies will almost certainly impact solidarity within the alliance. Ankara reacted strongly, saying Gabriel’s attitude was unacceptable and the Turkish judiciary is independent, so nobody should interfere with it. After all that has been said and done, the ball seems to still be in Turkey’s court.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).