Germans ‘realized rhetoric war with Turkey helped extreme right’
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German decision makers ‘realized that this crisis with Turkey is not good for Germany,’ and in fact, the rhetorics war between Berlin and Ankara ‘helped the German extreme right to gain popularity, which reflected on their electoral success,’ according to prominent academic Fuat Keyman.
Germany finally has a government. How do you think relations with Turkey will evolve?
During the period between the elections and the forming of the new government, there have been efforts to better relations. I see on both sides willingness to go back to normality, to at least take the necessary steps to normalize.
Unless there is an unexpected crisis situation, the efforts will continue and the new government will take the necessary steps to better relations.
In our last interview I had said relations were facing structural challenges and were in a real state of crisis. Right now I see a U-turn from the crisis and a will to revitalize relations.
There are a number of factors that made actors take this path, one of them is economy.
This period has revealed that Turkey and Germany have strong economic relations.
There was talk about Germany exerting pressure on Turkey by cutting credits from certain banks. Do you mean this has also played a role?
No. But that actually had an impact. Economic relations with Germany are of utmost importance in getting the Turkish economy going on in a vibrant way. And German economic actors realized that political crises have negative impacts on their interests and their investments in Turkey.
What are the other factors behind the U-turn?
Rhetoric wars between Turkey and Germany helped the German extreme right to gain popularity, which reflected on their electoral success. The Alternative for Germany party (AfD) gained power in the country’s political and social scene, becoming the main opposition in parliament. German decision makers realized that this crisis with Turkey is not good for Germany. And in contrast, the rhetorical war did not really damage Turkish President [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s popularity.
Another factor was that talks on Turkey in Berlin and talks on Turkey in Brussels did not go in a synchronized way. Germany wanted to carry its crisis with Turkey to Brussels and to other EU countries. But we saw different developments, like the growing relationship between Erdoğan and French President [Emmanuel] Macron. France decided to have better relations with Turkey in the area of counter-terrorism and foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, but maintained its skepticism toward Turkey’s accession to the EU. Meanwhile, there were actors in Brussels not willing to give up their relations with Turkey, especially in the area of counter-terrorism and the refugee issue. Seeing Turkey as a pivotal actor, some in the EU thought the suspension of accession talks for instance might have negative consequences for the EU. What they wanted was to decouple the relations, not to move forward on accession talks but to have better relations with Turkey in the area of counter-terrorism, foreign policy issues and the refugee problem.
That was not the position of Germany. But it did not achieve what it wanted to achieve in Brussels, like for instance the suspension of accession talks.
What was the motivation for the Turkish side to improve relations?
Senior decision makers of Turkey wanted to decouple its relations in the transatlantic alliance by keeping its relations with the U.S. and that with Europe separate.
They wanted to develop a strategy in which Turkey will be strong and hawkish with the U.S. on issues like Syria and the [Democratic Union Party] PYD, while they tried to reenergize relations with Europe so it could strengthen its hand in its talks with the U.S.
Should we conclude that Turkish-German relations will take a transactional form?
I don’t like the term transactional but this willingness of both actors to reenergize the relations does not mean that we are going to have very good relations. That does not mean that we will see Germany supporting Turkey’s accession to the EU.
These relations will be based on a sort of a perception of Turkey not as a member of the EU but as a strategic pivotal neighbor whose capacity cannot be ignored in terms of containing terrorist organizations like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and stopping the refugees from coming in. The European community sees Turkey more like a buffer zone.
While there are efforts to normalize, problems that were at the root of the tension are still there. Turkey continues to believe that German cooperation on the fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) remains unsatisfactory, while Germany criticizes deficit in democracy.
How this U-turn will be implemented from the perspective of German government is yet to be seen. The challenge will be how to create a balance between transnationalism; that is keeping momentum right with Turkey in the areas of terrorism, security and the refugee issue as well as in the area of the rule of law, democracy and freedoms.
If relations will be too instrumental they will face criticism from the opposition which will claim the government is ignoring the fundamental tenets of a relationship, which is democracy and rule of law, but if they listen to the opposition a lot and focus too much on democracy, they might lose ground on the areas of economy, security, etc.
This challenge will manifest itself most probably in Germany’s stance toward Turkey-EU relations, like visa liberalization and upgrading the Customs Union.
What we will see from the German side depends also to some extent on the performance of Turkey in certain areas. Instead of acceptance for total visa liberalization, there is a debate about lifting visa requirement for certain segments of the society, like academics and businesspeople.
But Berlin is not going to make moves on opening new chapters in accession talks.
Turkey, however, should not accept this, and should push for the continuation of accession negotiations. But obviously that cannot be based only on terms of Turkey’s great performance on the refugee crisis. It should entail Turkey’s decision to make a U-turn in its performance on democracy. Rather than releasing one or two names [from prison], Turkey should also focus on other cases and give signals to the West that it has a rule of law and its democracy is going back to normal after the  coup attempt.
Unless Turkey performs better in the area of democracy we cannot expect improvement in accession talks, because there won’t be a push factor for Germany.
But I would underline the importance of Turkey’s new strategy of decoupling its relations with the transatlantic community. Right now Turkey’s main focus is not the EU and Germany but is its relations with the U.S., especially in terms of Syria. Germany and the EU, except France, are not relevant there.
Currently, Turkey positions itself between the U.S. and Russia. In this sense we have a big game changer. The growing importance of Russia started to play a factor in Washington’s stance toward Turkey. Actually, the Russia pivot is also becoming more and more important in the way Germany looks at Turkey too.
Keyman is an expert on democratization, globalization, international relations, Turkey–EU relations, Turkish foreign policy, and civil society development. He is a member of the Science Academy and also worked as a member of the “Council of Wise People” as part of the Kurdish peace process. He also serves on advisory and editorial boards for a number of international and national organizations.
Prior to joining Sabancı University, Keyman taught at Koç University (2002-2010) and at Bilkent University (1994-2002). He was also Visiting Professor at Carleton University in the summer of 1997 and held post-doctoral fellowships from Wellesley College and Harvard University.
Keyman is author and editor of more than 20 books including most recently “Istanbul: Living with Difference in a Global City” (with Nora Fisher-Onar and Susan C. Pearce).