Turkey and Germany becoming Europe’s odd couple

Sunday 19/02/2017
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrive to make statements after a meeting in Ankara, on February 2nd. (AP)

When 40 high-rank­ing Turkish NATO military officials applied for asylum in Germany near the end of January they became just the latest of hundreds of Turks who had done the same. The German Interior Ministry said that in 2015, 1,700 Turkish nationals applied for asylum in Germany. In 2016, that number shot up to 5,700.

The German government’s decision to invite Turkish dissidents fleeing the increasingly authoritarian regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to apply for asylum is just one of several conflicts that have arisen between the two countries. Germany decides each asylum application on an individual case, but Michael Roth, state secretary at the Foreign Ministry, said in November that Germany is “a tolerant country which as a rule is open to the politically persecuted”, adding that Turkish dissidents “can seek asylum in Germany. That’s not just the case for journalists”.

As a result, Germany and Turkey have become Europe’s odd couple, bound together by strong economic ties but suspicious of each other because of allegations of Turkish clerics spying in Germany and Germany’s increasingly outspoken criticism of Turkey’s record on human rights.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken a leading role in the criticism of Ankara’s human rights record, albeit in a very reserved manner. In a series of relatively understated comments, Merkel and her government have made it known that they do not approve of what is happening in Turkey. During a visit earlier this month to Ankara, Merkel raised the issue of the imprisonment of Turkish journalists and the clampdown on free speech across the country.

In diplomatic terms, it was a relatively mild rebuke but it makes Germany one of the few Western countries willing to do so. US President Donald Trump has said he was not going to criticise the Turkish record on human rights abuses and British Prime Minister Theresa May, who also recently made a visit to Ankara, seems more intent on forging business ties to help Britain deal with the economic fallout from Brexit.

Merkel’s decision to criticise, even gently, the Turkish government has not gone unnoticed, with one writer in the Washington Post recently referring admiringly to her as a “Turkish dissident”.

It was no doubt a move that will infuriate Turkey, which had complained about Germany’s refusal to investigate more than 4,000 Turkish nationals in Germany whom Erdogan alleged have “terrorist ties”.

Just before Merkel’s visit, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak attacked Germany (along with Greece) saying: “From our perspective, there is no difference between Greece’s refusal of Turkey’s extradition request for soldiers involved in the July 15th coup attempt and Germany’s refusal of Turkey’s extradition request for PKK terrorists and FETO members.”

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the European Union and the United States. FETO is the name given by Turkey to supporters of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed by his former allies in the Turkish government of masterminding the July coup attempt.

Turkey is also furious that the German Defence Ministry decided not to share all imagery taken by German fighter jets operating out of the Incirlik Airbase in southern Turkey. The images are supposed to be used as part of the broader campaign against Islamic State (ISIS) forces in northern Syria but Germany is afraid that Turkey will use them against Kurdish forces, which are also battling ISIS and, therefore, is limiting what it is sharing with the Turks.

Yet the reality is the two countries need each other. Germany is the largest market for Turkish goods, so the government in Ankara cannot afford to totally alienate its largest customer. Germany is home to 4 million Turkish immigrant worker families, not all of whom are upset with the turn of affairs in their native country.

It is going to make things a bit tricky for Merkel, especially as she approaches elections this year, elections in which her solid human rights record will be challenged by forces on the far right. She needs to be seen as being tough with Turkey but not so tough that she alienates much-needed votes from the Turkish-German community that she requires to remain in power.

It is going to be a rough few months ahead for this odd couple. One can only hope that, in the long run, they find a way to work things out, otherwise both sides will suffer.