Will Merkel use the golden opportunity offered by Erdoğan?

Will Merkel use the golden opportunity offered by Erdoğan?

Country A’s reaction to country B could be seen as justifiable or legitimate if country A is perceiving an existential threat from country B.

When the head of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fled Syria and ended up in a luxurious villa in Italy, the two countries’ relations saw a historic low. People started boycotting Italian goods and demonstrations were held for days in front of the Italian embassy in Ankara.

Criminalization of the Armenian claims of genocide was not an existential threat for Turkey. Still, Turkey’s reaction was severe, applying an official boycott against French companies.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was angered when the Dutch government objected to the Turkish ministers’ demand to hold election rallies and decided to bar a Turkish minister’s access to the Turkish mission, suspecting her to meet with Turkish citizens for an electoral campaign. Even though this was not an existential threat against Turkey’s national interest, the AKP did not see a problem in mobilizing its supporters to take to the street and protest the Netherlands. That’s why we have seen absurdities such as the stabbing of oranges in the streets. 

The PKK and the Fethullahist Terror organization (FETÖ) are seen as two existential threats. The Turkish government believes members of the PKK and FETÖ find a safe haven in Germany. Hence, the current situation is as bad as it can be. There is no official word on an economic boycott. (The list of German companies suspected of having links with FETÖ sent to Interpol was just a silly road accident and the list was later pulled back.)

Instead, there is a constant war of words between the two countries’ leaders.

By contrast, Fethullah Gülen who is accused of having plotted the coup attempt lives in the United States. The Turkish government’s requests for extradition or detention have been turned down. The U.S. has been providing military support to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the PKK’s wing in Syria. In addition, U.S. prosecutors have charged a former Turkish minister, Zager Çağlayan, with evasion of Iran sanctions. The president’s security detail cannot travel to the United States as there are arrest warrants for 12 of the president’s bodyguards.

This is as bad as it gets. Despite an initial reaction about Çağlayan, nothing akin to the war of words that we witness with Berlin is taking place with Washington.

It seems that the Turkish president has chosen a ground that is expandable for him to wage his offensive against Germany: Turkey’s accession to the European Union. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is convinced that Europeans will never let Turkey become a member, even if Turkey were to fulfill all criteria. Besides, it has now become clear that he sees the accession process as a liability rather than an asset for his domestic governance style and its foreign policy ambitions. Third, if the EU were to officially kill Turkey’s membership bid, he would yet find another theme to consolidate his constituency, capitalizing from the “us versus them” polarization.

This is why Erdoğan called on Turks with German citizenship to avoid voting for mainstream German parties. In addition to calling Germans “Nazis,” this direct interference to domestic German politics was meant to strike a nerve and be the final straw.

And it worked. A Social Democrats candidate pledged to officially end Turkey’s membership talks while Prime Minister Angela Merkel promised to bring the issue to the EU’s agenda after the elections.

Merkel is set to win the elections and Erdoğan has offered her the golden opportunity to realize her initial goal of ending Turkey’s candidate status and limit the relationship to a “privileged partnership.”

Will she use this golden opportunity? I am betting she won’t.