What’s next in Turkish–German relations?

What’s next in Turkish–German relations?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has proven to be both a lifesaver and a troublemaker for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

At a time when Merkel could find no allies in Europe or at home for her open-door refugee policy, Ankara accepted a deal to stop them at the Turkey–Europe border. Turkey delivered on the deal, providing breathing space for Merkel after she came in for heavy domestic criticism for refusing to put an upper limit on how many refugees could enter Germany every year.

However, Turkey also became a big headache for Merkel, especially during electoral campaign periods, as she was constantly targeted by Erdoğan’s extremely harsh rhetoric.  

Bilateral relations particularly started to deteriorate after the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, when Turkey’s request for a clampdown on the Gülen network in Germany was left unanswered. Coupled with the activities of supporters of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Ankara’s conviction that every group hostile to Turkey finds a safe haven in Germany was consolidated. 

Worse, ruling party elites concluded that Merkel’s government would not have been unhappy to see Erdoğan toppled by the coup attempt, which explains the Turkish president’s personal fury directed against Merkel. As a result, Erdoğan and his close associates’ suspicion and dislike of Merkel and her associates seem to have taken deep roots.

Similarly, Erdoğan’s description of German rulers as “Nazis” and his call for Turkish-origin voters to avoid casting their votes for Merkel, the Greens and the Social Democrats, struck a nerve in Germany. 

Just like the wound that has recently opened up due to the erosion in the trust between Ankara and Washington, the wound in Turkey–Germany relations is deep. But Erdoğan is here to stay - at least until 2019 - and Merkel is also here to stay - at least for another term.

What’s more, in contrast to relations with the U.S., relations between Turkey and Germany are so intertwined that the current level of tension is not sustainable.

As a highly pragmatic leader, Merkel will not be feeling extremely enthusiastic to pursue her election promise to open talks within the European Union to end Turkey’s membership talks. As she will still be in the midst of coalition talks, it is unlikely that she will raise the issue with full conviction at the upcoming European Council meeting in October. The debate on Turkey within the EU will therefore be postponed - at least until early next year, when the latest progress report will be published. 

On a bilateral level, however, Merkel may face more difficulty in shaping Germany’s Turkey policy, as her most likely coalition partners - the Greens and the Liberals (known together as the Jamaica coalition) – will probably ask her to pursue a more of a hardline policy against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government.

So far Merkel has not been convinced that contention rather than engagement will improve the situation with Ankara. Agreeing on a common position and implementing a Turkey policy in a Jamaica coalition will certainly be difficult, though even more challenging issues await the three party talks.

Erdoğan and Merkel may use the aftermath of the elections and the time to form a coalition in Berlin to try to cool off relations a little. A fresh dialogue may then be kicked off at the technical level to overview problems, especially on security cooperation and human rights issues. 

That would not heal the wounds, which are too deep to be easily fixed, but at least it may stop further deterioration.