EU bid nonissue in Turkish-German crisis

EU bid nonissue in Turkish-German crisis

In addition to being the first female German chancellor, the first to have grown up in the former East Germany, the youngest German chancellor since the Second World War, Angela Merkel is also the first born after World War Two.

She might also go down in history to be the first German politician to suffer amnesia about an electoral campaign promise that lasted for more than a decade. Before being elected in 2005, Merkel said in an unequivocal manner that she was against Turkey’s membership to the European Union and that she will work to have a privileged partnership between the EU and Turkey. 

As she had to share power with the Social Democrats in her first tenure, the compromising formula she found was to avoid obstructing membership talks, arguing for the principle of pacta sund servanda (agreements must be kept). By 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was against Turkey’s membership, won the French elections and did the job for Merkel, partially blocking the talks.

Following Sarkozy’s defeat in the 2012 membership, talks were set for a revival, and even visa exemption negotiations had started. With a clear majority in parliament in her second term, Merkel did not take a step to block the reactivation of the membership process. Did she foresee the break of the mass protests in the summer of 2013 (known as the Gezi Park events) that speeded the government’s slide into authoritarian rule and set Turkey-EU relations on an ever-deteriorating course?

Whether helped by Sarkozy or President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who became disinterested with the EU, Merkel did not have to take a direct step to obstruct Turkey’s membership talks. Ironically, finding no allies within the EU to handle the refugee flow, she stroke a deal with Erdoğan in 2015, promising to revive membership talks in exchange of stopping refugees at Turkish borders. Although she became the target of criticism for letting down the refugees and for striking a deal with an “anti-democratic leader,” the deal worked; Turkey delivered and that increased Merkel’s domestic support ratings. 

Amid deteriorating bilateral relations, she is currently put under pressure to take a step against Turkey. Ironically, no one is asking her to cancel the deal with Turkey; neither has she pledged to do so. But under electoral campaign pressure she said she will ask the EU to take a position to halt accession talks.

This is just empty rhetoric. Even if she were to look as if she will ask EU leaders to halt talks, she knows she will not get unanimity within the bloc for such a decision, nor would she want such an outcome. 

In short, Turkish-EU relations are not at stake. It keeps coming up; because they are in a way expendable. They are in a coma, and pulling the plug won’t gain much to the Europeans, while Erdoğan will use such a decision to further consolidate his constituency.

What is at stake is Turkish-German political relations. Interestingly, in contrast to the tension between France and Turkey, Turkish-German economic relations are not suffering from the current crisis. In addition to Sarkozy’s hostile attitude to Turkey’s EU bid, France’s decision to criminalize the denial of Armenian Genocide claims had led the government to impose an economic embargo on France, keeping French companies out of big tenders. No such decision is in practice with Germany, even though the German parliament passed a resolution last June recognizing genocide claims. 

While the decision which Ankara believes Merkel did not do much to fight against did strike nerves with the government, the aftermath of the July 2016 coup attempt overshadowed that decision. Relations took a nose dive in the aftermath of the July coup attempt because the German reaction during and after the coup led Erdoğan to conclude that Germany would rather want him to disappear from the political scene. 

No sign of solidarity or support came from Germany during the coup attempt.

In addition, Erdoğan was banned two weeks later from addressing his supporters via video at a rally in Cologne, at the same place where the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) leadership in the Qandil Mountains in Iraq faced no difficulty in doing the same. On top of all that, the Gülenist suspect of the coup attempt found safe haven in Germany, which turned down Turkey’s request for both extradition of suspects and a clamp down of the Gülenist network in the country. All these have increased Erdoğan’s perception of hostility to his rule from Germany.

So this is a very deep crisis that will not be left behind easily once elections in Germany are over. It has become clear that keeping some Germans hostage in Turkish prisons will not make a change in the German stance. So it will be highly interesting to see what course of action the two governments will take in the aftermath of the elections.