Why Merkel’s EU threat rings hollow for Turkey

Why Merkel’s EU threat rings hollow for Turkey

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has put his stamp on the German federal elections and drawn Berlin into a fight it never wanted to be a part of. With 3 million expatriate Turks in Germany, most of them avid Erdoğan supporters, and German investments in Turkey worth billions of euros, it is clear that Berlin has been pushed off balance in this squabble. 

Ankara says recent remarks by Chancellor Angela Merkel, which reflect a desire to punish the Erdoğan administration for its undemocratic and legally questionable moves, are motivated by a need to woo voters in the federal elections to be held later this month.

Erdoğan has also expressed his belief that matters between the two countries will return to normal once the German elections are over. Erdoğan is a master populist so he has some understanding of this political game. 

According to a report in daily Hürriyet on Sept. 4, former German President Christian Wulff also believes things will cool down after the elections. But Wulff also lists the conditions for this to happen, including the release of German citizens held in Turkey on terrorism charges, which Berlin says are trumped-up. 

The expectation that these conditions will be met remains an open question. Meanwhile, it may not be clear to what extent Merkel will benefit politically by hitting at Turkey, but it is apparent that blasting Germany gains Erdoğan support at home and among Turks in Germany.

In many ways, Berlin seems to have landed itself in an intractable situation with a few options. Given all the vitriol from Turkey it has had to swallow to date, it never once considered pulling back its ambassador, for example, even though this is a common move among countries to show diplomatic displeasure.

It was interesting, against this backdrop, to see the question of Turkey taking up an important part in Merkel’s televised debate on Sept. 3 with Martin Schulz, her social democratic challenger in the elections.

 Inevitably the question of Turkey’s EU bid came up with both party leaders vowing to end this if elected.

“The fact is clear that Turkey should not become an EU member,” Merkel said, adding that she would seek a joint position in the EU on this question. It was noteworthy though that she did not say Germany would unilaterally veto the membership negotiations. 

All of this indicates that the threat of stifling Ankara’s EU bid will be one of Berlin’s main instruments in trying to get Turkey back in line in regard to democracy, human rights, an independent judiciary, and the rule of law.

This, however, is exactly the point where Berlin’s weakness manifests itself. For one thing, Merkel, despite her pledge to honor the decisions of previous government’s on this issue, is the main European leader who has declared all along – even when Turkish-German ties were good – that she opposes Turkey’s EU membership.

She has also said that even if Turkey’s membership talks ended successfully this would not guarantee membership. In the meantime, developments in Europe show that Turkey’s EU bid is highly unpopular across the old and increasingly weary continent.

This is why Merkel’s threat in Sunday’s debate rings hollow. Most Turks have long since accommodated themselves to the belief that this membership will never happen. Put another way, Merkel did not invest enough in regard to this question in the past for her threat today to be meaningful.

All she can really do to hurt Turkey - and even that to a certain extent only - is to prevent the modernization of the EU-Turkey Customs Union. Her dilemma, however, is that German business has also invested much in this customs union so any extreme steps by Berlin would backfire.

The bottom line is that Merkel, who is slated to win the elections, has a rival in Erdoğan that she does not know how to cope with. This will most likely continue to be the case after the German elections.