Ankara fears economic effects of crisis with Germany
Istanbul - After more than a year of rocky diplomacy, the relationship between NATO allies and major trade partners Turkey and Germany has come to a head over the arrest of IT consultant and German citizen Peter Steudtner.
He was taken into custody during a crackdown on a human rights workshop on an island off Istanbul. Ankara fingered Steudtner, who was jailed with seven others pending trial, for links to unspecified terrorist groups, an accusation seen as “incomprehensible” in Berlin.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel reacted to the arrest by saying: “We can’t continue as we have done until now.”
“We need to be clearer than we have been until now so those responsible in Ankara understand that such policies are not without consequences,” he said, warning German citizens to “exercise extreme caution” when travelling to Turkey as “arrests could target anyone.”
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble has drawn parallels between the situation in Turkey and the repression in former East Germany and Justice Minister Heiko Maas said anyone travelling to the country would “unfortunately not spend their holiday in a state of law.”
In a rare show of cross-party unity, German politicians across the spectrum supported a harsher stance against Turkey, with some, including Social Democratic Party (SPD) chancellor candidate Martin Schulz and Horst Seehofer, the leader of Bavaria’s right-wing Christian Social Union (CSU), demanding an end to financial aid to Turkey. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier suggested tougher measures and a strong message for Ankara were “a question of self-respect.”
Tensions between the two countries have been running high over Germany’s decision to recognise the Armenian genocide in a June 2016 resolution, the arrest of Turkish- German correspondent Deniz Yucel on terrorism-related charges and Ankara’s refusal to allow German MPs to visit German soldiers at two airbases in Turkey.
While Berlin relied on de-escalation, Turkey stepped up the rhetoric. When several German cities banned Turkish ministers and MPs from having election rallies ahead of the referendum in April, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of “Nazi methods.”
Turkey also accused Germany of harbouring members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a listed terrorist organisation in the European Union, and followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for the 2016 coup attempt.
Ankara has sought to limit the fallout of the latest crisis. The Turkish government has withdrawn a blacklist of several hundred German companies it accused of links to the Gulen network and several high-ranking government officials hurried to guarantee that no German company would face investigations or other difficulties in the country.
Turkey’s worry that this time the spat might hit the economy is all but unfounded. As part of Germany’s hardening stance, Gabriel threatened to end corporate investment guarantees, a step that could halt German business ventures in Turkey. The Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) said the current environment made investing in Turkey hard to imagine.
A scholar of international relations, who wished to remain anonymous because of his affiliation with a Turkish university, said such a measure would be “very detrimental” to Turkey’s shaky economy. “The economy is on the verge of crisis. Ankara cannot afford to risk it. This is why Turkey is not going to escalate this dispute,” he said.
Germany has not made good on its threats and Ankara has chosen to wait and see, though Erdogan slammed Germany’s hardened rhetoric as “blackmail” and railed that those who “scare Turkey with embargoes… must first be ready for much bigger consequences.”
The upcoming election in Germany and Erdogan’s need to rally nationalist support — and votes — until 2019, however, could fuel the dispute as part of both sides’ election campaigns.
The academic underlined that economic and political sanctions against Turkey would hurt those that oppose the Turkish government at home. “Half the country does not support AK party policies,” he said, referring to Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). “The main problem is that such sanctions are always a form of collective punishment.”
While some EU members, led by Austria, have been demanding an end to Turkey’s EU accession talks, critics said such a step would harm those who dare to oppose repression and increasing authoritarianism in the country.
“Talks should never be cut off,” the scholar of international relations said, adding that the opposition depended on communication channels remaining open. “It is the content of talks that need to be revised. European countries have not been consistent in their reactions to what happened in Turkey. They did not put the necessary pressure on the government when they should have.”
Human rights activists have long criticised the European Union, and especially Germany, for turning a blind eye to the worsening situation in Turkey while trying to complete the contentious EU-Turkey refugee deal.
“If the European Union had not made that dirty refugee deal with Turkey, the situation would not have deteriorated this badly,” said one academic who was forced to leave the country in the beginning of this year.
The EU-Turkey deal, struck in March 2016, involved Turkey accepting the return of all irregular migrants from Greece in exchange for billions of dollars in aid money and the prospect of visa liberalisation for Turkish nationals. The agreement, however, has been slammed by numerous critics for violating international refugee law and handing Turkey de facto carte blanche to suspend human rights in the country. “Germany was happy to look away as long as Turkey kept the refugees out,” the exiled academic said.