Bitter war of words between Ankara and Berlin

Bitter war of words between Ankara and Berlin

The war of words between Ankara and Berlin is creating ever more risk, perhaps in unintended and unforeseen ways. 

Turkey has been accusing Germany of disregarding Turkey’s national security concerns by harboring outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) sympathizers and Gülenists, while Berlin has criticized Ankara for taking German citizens “as hostages” – a reference to the detention of 12 German citizens in Turkey on political charges. 

The verbal attacks between the countries’ respective leaders will surely leave scars. And if this tit-for-tat approach is not abandoned, diplomatic tension could inevitably spill over to damage long-term economic and cultural ties.

The stakes of a long-term crisis become more obvious when one considers that Germany is Turkey’s number-one export partner and that there are over 3 million Turks living in Germany.

Some in Turkey expect tension to dissipate after Germany’s general elections on Sept. 24, presuming that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s harsh rhetoric on Turkey is a largely tactical ploy to appeal voters, especially amid pressure from the far-right.

That might not be the case, however. On the contrary, Merkel seems to be signaling emboldened pressure on Turkey. She has already suggested suspending preparatory work for an update to the EU-Turkey Customs Union and cutting pre-accession assistance to Ankara. And if re-elected, she has said she will urge EU leaders to suspend accession talks in October. Given Germany’s position in the EU, Merkel – the poll favorite – has the capacity to deliver on her campaign promises.

And while the accession process now exists merely on paper, its continuation remains a key source of economic and political credibility for Turkey. 

“Turkey and Germany have a long history of economic and cultural cooperation, which is why up until today the two have managed to isolate economic investments from political disputes,” said Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD) Berlin representative Alper Üçok. “But the current situation is unsustainable. The German Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning a few days ago with an extremely negative wording about the security situation, while claiming there is arbitrary rule in Turkey,” he said. 

The portrayal of Turkey as politically unstable might eventually curb foreign investment, he said, noting that a Handelsblatt study said more than two-thirds of German companies “see Turkey as a dangerous place.”

Automotive Parts and Components Association (TAYSAD) Chairman Alper Kanca, meanwhile, is concerned about the possibility of a German cold war on Turkey on the economic front. 

“The automotive sector is considered the engine of the Turkish industry. It occupies the lion’s share in all of Turkey’s exports. And Germany is Turkey’s leading export partner,” said Kanca. “Common wisdom dictates maintaining cordial ties with Germany, which is obviously to the benefit of both countries. In a competitive world, Turkey matters to Germany, just as Germany matters to Turkey,” he added.  

But Kanca then sounds a warning. “We will not see the negative effects of this crisis immediately, but if this antipathy persists between Turkey and Germany, we may see that, in the long run, investors opt not to renew their contracts or search for alternative markets,” he added. 

As for the Customs Union, Üçok noted that it was Germany that lobbied for an update until just three months ago. “One has to wonder, what has changed since then?” 

Updating the agreement, which Turkey signed in 1995, is seen as important in terms of negotiating better terms for trade and eliminating disadvantages that have come to face Turkey since then. 

“A qualified majority vote is necessary to [update] the Customs Union agreement with Turkey, and Germany is a key country within the EU in this respect. Given the current impasse between Turkey and Germany, as well as between Turkey and the EU, the modernization of agreement will have to wait for a while in the best-case scenario,” said Üçok.

Even though that sounds cliché, it is true that neither Europe nor Turkey has the luxury to turn its back on the other. Deepening the rift between Turkey and Germany is a reflection of the deteriorating ties between Turkey and the EU. Mending ties with one will certainly help restore relations with the other. 

Unfortunately, it is not so easy to meet on common ground when all the parties perceive making concessions as weakness. 

Even so, the alternatives are so costly…