Strengths in Turkish–German relations are also weaknesses
Earlier this month German Ambassador to Turkey Martin Erdmann met a group of journalists in Istanbul.
According to the report in daily Cumhuriyet, Erdmann said Berlin had a “problem in understanding” the July 2016 coup attempt and the activities of the Gülen movement, adding that Germany is “engaging in self-criticism” in that sense.
According to Cumhuriyet, one journalist at the meeting asked Erdmann how he could not understand, “after all you are not the ambassador of Papua New Guinea.”
Indeed, Germany has one of the biggest diplomatic missions in Turkey. But the German presence is not limited to the size of Berlin’s diplomatic corps. There are more than 7,100 German companies active in Turkey. Political party affiliated foundations like the Konrad Adenauer Sifting have offices in Turkey. There is also the Goethe Institute, German schools, Turkish–German universities, and the millions of German tourists who spend their holidays in Turkey... The list goes on.
The same is true for the Turkish presence in Germany. But apparently more than 2.5 million Turks living in Germany cannot facilitate a better understanding of Turkey, and the multidimensional presence of Germany in Turkey fails to achieve a correct analysis of Turkish affairs. Perhaps the Papua New Guinean ambassador can achieve a healthier approach as they are devoid of all the historical, political, cultural and emotional baggage that weighs so heavily in Turkish–German relations. It seems that strengths in the relationship that could help build bridges can equally become weaknesses that burn bridges.
Just as there were thousands who took to the streets upon the call of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the night of the coup attempt, there are many who initially thought it was a coup staged by the president himself. That polarization in Turkey, especially on the issue of the president and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), is also reflected among Turks in Germany. So just like German officials might be affected by anti-AKP feelings, their surprise and irritation to see huge support from German Turks for a leader who they see as becoming increasingly authoritarian may have also played a role in their initial reaction.
Whatever the reason behind it, the initial reaction - or lack of reaction - from Germany and other European countries created a perception in Ankara that Europe is not exactly “fond” of Turkey’s ruling elites. Relations before the coup were not exactly smooth, but when Erdoğan’s wish to address Turks in Germany was turned down and members of Fetullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) started to defect to Germany, the downward spiral intensified.
Ankara has resorted to a “hostage-taking” policy, arresting German journalist with Turkish roots Deniz Yücel and German human rights activist Peter Steudtner. That prompted Germany to introduce a number of economic measures in response.
The economic dimension remains the strongest bond in Turkey’s relations with Europe. The business community on both sides usually tries to play damage control role whenever there are crises at the political level. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, however, the German business community faced a big shock. That shock came from reports that Turkey had given a list to the German authorities of German companies suspected of “supporting terrorism.” Later, the number of “blacklisted” companies was said to be 680. The immediate denial of the list by the Turkish authorities, as well as the later admittance that the issue stemmed from a “mistake,” did not prevent shockwaves from taking their toll on German businesspeople. The issue of the “blacklist” still comes up in discussions to this day, despite the fact that the number of German companies in Turkey that faced legal difficulties due to FETÖ is said to be only two.
Indeed, well-established German companies have continued to thrive in Turkey in the post-coup period, despite the ongoing state of emergency. In fact, some among them had their best performance in the world last year in Turkey. However, most of them have postponed their plans for additional investment. And there are few newcomers willing to invest in Turkey. This is the case despite the fact that there has been an improvement between Ankara and Berlin. The state of emergency and negative perceptions about the state of judicial independence in Turkey remain major obstacles.
When German business in Turkey continues to harbor significant doubts, it is a good example of how a potentially strong point in the relationship can turn into a weak point.