Turkish-German crisis goes beyond electoral populism
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Populism and the upcoming elections in Germany are not the sole reasons of the current crisis between Turkey and Germany, according to a prominent scholar.
“The crisis goes beyond the so-called populist tendencies that occur around election times. Elections and populism should be considered as factors that have contributed to the acceleration of the crisis, but they are not the main cause of the crisis,” Fuat Keyman, the director of the Istanbul Policy Center and Professor of International Relations at Sabancı University, has told the Hürriyet Daily News.
How do you see the current situation in Turkish-German relations?
Firstly, the crisis is a very serious one. Secondly, this crisis goes beyond the so-called populist tendencies that occur around election times. Elections and populism should be considered as factors that have contributed to the acceleration of the crisis, but they are not the main cause of the crisis.
Thirdly, we have to also acknowledge that the Turkey-Germany crisis has a tendency to create a big problem to Turkey-EU relations because Germany’s foreign policy pillar is European integration and it is not wrong to think about Turkey-German relations as Turkey-EU-Germany relations for there is an intertwined relationship between the three. In this sense, as someone suggested, Berlin might be more important than Brussels in terms of thinking about how to reenergize Turkey-EU relations. So we are also talking about a crisis with a potential to create big problems in the already problematic Turkey-EU relations.
There is also an irony in this crisis because it occurred at a time when Germany’s [Angela] Merkel had been a frequent visitor to Turkey who wanted to make bilateral relations more enhanced, especially within the context of the refugee crisis, the failed state situations in Iraq and Syria, as well as the fight against Daesh [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – ISIL].
Germany acknowledged the importance of Turkey in dealing with the refugee crisis.
That’s why we should look at this crisis beyond a conjectural, temporal, and an election-related crisis.
Turkey’s drift from the EU is very important. The more Turkey drifted from the EU, which actually translated into Turkey drifting from democratic norms, the more perception of Turkey in Germany by different actors deteriorated. Merkel received a lot of criticism for trying to do business with Turkey. The other irony is that the Social Democratic Party, which had supported Turkey’s EU journey, has now turned negative. Both of them are against Turkey’s membership right now. What connects these two? The more Turkey drifted from the EU, the more difficult it has become in Germany to support both Turkey’s EU perspective and relations with Turkey [overall].
Do you think there have been some turning points in the crisis?
The debates on the so-called Armenian Genocide resolution in the German parliament were an important turning point, but in general we had a sort of a gradual decline in relations. The more functional and instrumental Turkey-EU relations have become, along the lines of “Turkey has become very pivotal in dealing with the refugee crisis so we should not pay attention to democratic norms,” the more the decline accelerated. It makes it difficult to continue these relations in this instrumental way.
Germany and Merkel started looking at Turkey as a strategic partner, rather than an EU candidate. That instrumentalism was, of course, criticized by other actors in Germany suggesting that Turkey is an EU candidate, so democracy, the rule of law, and such norms, were as important as Turkey’s pivotal role in the refugee issue. What happened was, right now, first the refugee issue is not that challenging for Europe anymore, so Europe and Germany realized that Turkey is actually a container.
Merkel’s approach to Turkey was “as long as Turkey was a container in the refugee issue, I have to engage with Turkey.”
But once that is done, Merkel can actually work on the rule of law. There, we have the second turning point: The July 15, 2016, coup attempt.
Turkey is, in that sense, right about European actors being late and not really sincere when standing with Turkey and the Turkish people.
Do you think the Turkish government and the president himself perhaps have concluded that Europe does not want them in power?
Turkey looked at the coup attempt, by the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization [FETÖ], and [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK terror as two existential challenges to the Turkish state.
So in the beginning, in the aftermath of the coup, there was a possibility for us, people from think tanks or academia, to criticize our European friends not to appreciate or empathize with Turkey. But when the purge became so huge - reaching to people who had nothing to do with the coup attempt - then of course we started seeing criticisms building from Europe. And then came the referendum process in Turkey as well as elections in Europe. But the crisis cannot be reduced to elections; it will not go away after the [German] elections. It’s more profound.
Has Turkey endorsed a hostage taking policy with the detention of German citizens?
As a Turkish citizen, I do not want to consider [the possibility that the] Turkish state can actually use a hostage policy to strengthen its position.
Germany’s position on the Gülenists, or FETÖ coup plotters, and PKK members is unacceptable.
Obviously, all this accelerate the crisis, but it will continue even if German citizens were released. There is a big problem of trust. I think maybe the actors on the two sides have passed the threshold; it will be very difficult to go back. Turkish decision makers don’t trust the EU, and also ideologically speaking, they are not as philosophically and normatively committed to western values. They see Turkey as an independent nation state with global engagement.
The trajectories between Turkey and Germany, Turkey and the EU are diverging rather than converging.
So the problem is more structural than temporary and both sides are to blame for this situation.
How do you see the president’s call on Turkish Germans not to vote for mainstream parties?
Germans can easily interpret Erdoğan’s words as an interference in their domestic affairs. Again this war of words, the ease at which actors are blaming each other and saying what they have been saying, comes from the fact that we are talking about a relationship in a big crisis.
Had Turkey seen the EU anchor as crucial for its future, Turkish decision makers would pay more attention to what they say.
If Germans had seen Turkey not as a kind of a partner but a candidate country, they would have paid attention to their rhetoric, too. Their position on the coup attempt would have been different.
What is the expectation of the Turkish government from German elections; what will happen afterwards?
Right now, after the elections, the crisis will continue, but it will actually switch in terms of place from Berlin to Brussels. The crisis will continue in terms of Turkey’s place in the EU and Germany will push for a talk in the EU toward that direction.
The recent statements coming from friends in the EU are not without any reason. They know that in October, Germany will seriously push for a debate about Turkey.
In this sense, we will see a second round of the Turkey-Germany crisis in Brussels after the election.
So Germany will keep its word after the elections?
It might go for an official suspension of talks. Of course, the rational thinking suggests suspension would be very costly not only for Turkey but also for the EU. And technically, once talks are suspended, it will be very difficult to go back to normal.
Merkel wanted a privileged partnership for Turkey, and the Turkish government is now less enthusiastic in its membership bid; so perhaps Turkish and German policies are overlapping.
Indeed. The refugee crisis is contained. And now, with the current crisis, we see a result in which Germany might end up getting privileged partnership for Turkey. And Turkish foreign policy has been operating in such a way that Turkish decision makers prefer to be a kind of an independent nation state engaging with different parts of the world without having a strong anchor in Europe.
In a way, the actors on both sides are getting what they want. But is it good for Europe and Turkey? That’s why I am saying the crisis is more in terms of Turkey and its future and the EU and its future.
Who is Fuat Keyman?
Fuat Keyman is the director of the Istanbul Policy Center and Professor of International Relations at Sabancı University.
He is a member of the Science Academy and worked as a member of the “Council of Wise People” during the now-collapsed Kurdish peace process. He also serves on advisory and editorial boards for a number of respected international and national organizations, as well as for academic journals.
Prior to joining Sabancı University, Keyman taught at Koç University (2002- 2010) and Bilkent University 1994- 2002.)
He holds several post-doctoral fellowships from Wellesley College and Harvard University. He has been the research director for various projects such as Peter Berger and Samuel Huntington’s Many Globalizations, CIVICUS, and Mapping Civil Society in Turkey
Keyman is the author and editor of more than 20 books, most recently “Turkey, The Arab Spring and Beyond,” co-authored with Bülent Aras (2016), and “Democracy, Identity and Foreign Policy in Turkey,” co-authored with Şebnem Gümüşçü (2014).