Turkish–German ties at historic low, says scholar Faruk Şen

Turkish–German ties at historic low, says scholar Faruk Şen

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Turkish–German ties at historic low, says scholar Faruk Şen Entangled in a “love-hate” relationship, the German and Turkish governments are currently seeing a historic low in their ties, according to Professor Faruk Şen, a long-time observer of the two countries.  

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is seen as an “enemy figure” in Germany, but Turkey “mismanages” its justified frustration with the German government, says Şen, the president of the board of directors of the Turkish European Foundation for Education and Scientific Studies. 

Just one year ago, Turkey–Germany relations seemed to hit a peak with the refugee deal, as well as several visits from Chancellor Angela Merkel to Turkey. What went wrong?

My thesis has always been this: If Turkey and Germany had shared borders we would be a confederation, but we also would have gone to war. The two countries are in a love-hate relationship. When you look at German media, eight out of 10 news reports are about Turkey. I asked on a German TV program about why the German media has so much coverage of Turkey, and they said that is what sells. In the past it was [Russian President Vladimir] Putin who filled the frame for the picture of the enemy. Now it is first Recep Tayip Erdoğan, second Turkey, and third the president’s wife Emine Erdoğan. German politicians who criticize Turkey are applauded, those who speak well of Turkey are attacked. 

After Merkel changed her immigration policy and decided that Germany would host one million refugees, she faced a reaction from her constituents. As a result she had to come three times in five months to Turkey to convince the Turkish government on the refugee deal. That deal stopped the refugee flow, easing the reaction back in Germany. 

Why then have relations now turned cold? One of the reasons for the deterioration was the Gezi Park protests, during which the German press took a very negative approach toward the Turkish government.

I hoped the recent visit of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier would stop the negative direction of relations. But Turkey treated him very badly. Trying to humiliate a visitor to your country is unprecedented. This is a man who is going to be German president.

You seem to put a lot of the blame for the deterioration on the German press.

Politicians take their lead from the press. Once Turkey made the agenda in the press, Turkey filled the picture of the enemy for politicians, who need a figure to attack in order to be visible in the media. But Turkey is also becoming the enemy in the eyes of many German people who are influenced by the press and politicians’ rhetoric. German tourists are not afraid of bombs; if fewer German tourists are now coming to Turkey, that is because of the country’s image. In Germany, if you say “I’m going to Turkey, this is now perceived meaning ‘I’m going to a dictator’s country.’”

Turkey has made a lot of mistakes too. A little known comedian [Jan Böhmermann] became famous because Turkey took him to court [for mocking Erdoğan]. Merkel could have been an advantage for Turkey, but we lost her too.

When did we lose her? Turkey has fulfilled its part of the refugee deal by stopping the flow.

Merkel operates from the conviction that she would lose votes if she approaches Turkey in a way that is too positive. After the refugee deal was sealed, she believed she no longer had to show any warmth to Turkey.

Does she not fear that the refugee flow might pick up if the deal collapses?

No one in Europe has such a fear any more. Turkey can no longer open its borders to let refugees cross to Europe. I went to Athens in summer by boat. I saw five NATO ships protecting Greece’s borders from NATO member Turkey.

Back when the deal was struck, Erdoğan told [then Prime Minister] Ahmet Davutoğlu not to come back from Germany without securing the 3 million euros. Of that, only 176 million euros have so far been paid. So in a sense the EU, with the influence of Germany, has tricked Turkey.

So you think there are reasons for Turkey to be cross with Berlin.

We are right to be angry. But we have also make mistakes. It is us who signed the deal without getting certain guarantees. Instead of insisting on visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, we should have insisted on Turkey being included in the EU’s 2017 budget.

We are right to be angry at the German Parliament’s June 2 decision on the Armenian genocide issue.

According to that decision, this issue will be taught in every school. There are 1 million Turkish-origin children going to schools in Germany and now their German friends are going to tell them, “Your father committed genocide before my father committed genocide.” The German government could have postponed the vote to gain time.

With regard to Turkey, we don’t know how to apply sanctions either. We did not let German parliamentarians visit the İncirlik air base [where German planes are deployed]. Foreign Minister Steinmeier then said this was not a government decision, and we allowed the German parliamentarians come to İncirlik. Steinmeier then asked to come to Turkey, but we did not give him an appointment for five weeks. This is not rational.

Ankara claims that Steinmeier was too impatient about getting an appointment and speaking with his Turkish counterpart on the phone, saying his intense insistence irritated them. It says a Turkish minister cannot just be available whenever a German minister wants.

There is something called protocol. You might not answer a request immediately, but at least you offer a date. I am very critical of Germany. But you can’t refuse to give a date to the foreign minister of a country that is the boss of the EU. I think [Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut] Çavuşoğlu was making a show for domestic politics. 

You said the Gezi protests were a turning point. It also seems that the July 15 coup attempt was also a turning point in the deterioration of ties.

Relations had deteriorated well before July 15. But indeed Germany showed no solidarity after the failed coup. Also don’t forget that the country where the Fethullah Gülen movement is strongest is not the United States, but Germany. When the Gülen movement started organizing in Germany in 1996 it did not open mosques, it opened dormitories and think tanks, research centers. It seduced German politicians and the press. So the German state has come to tolerate them. In its view, the Gülenists have not committed any crime in Germany. 

It is similar to the case of the [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK. On that, Turkey is 100 percent right to be angry with Germany. The PKK is organized in every German city under a different name, and as long as it does not commit terrorist acts there the German state turns a blind eye.

How does Germany position Turkey in its strategic outlook?

Germany has a very strong deep state, which can even influence what the press writes. It currently has a negative stance on Turkey and thinks democracy is being suspended in Turkey. The German deep state is uncomfortable with the 3.2 million Turkish origin people living in Germany. It also operates from the conviction that there is no longer need for Turkey due to the rapprochement with Iran. It now sees Iran as a strategic partner in the region.

The presence of millions of Turks seems to work against Turkish–German relations.

Who do you quarrel with the most: The one who is closer to you, or the one you have polite relations with but who you are not close to? There are 4,500 German firms that have invested in Turkey, and 80,000 Turkish entrepreneurs have started businesses in Germany. Millions of German tourists come to Turkey every year. Every German political party has a Turkish member in its local organizations. Germans don’t know much about China or some other countries, but Turks and the Turkish issue are part of their everyday life.

Where do you see relations going in the future?

It cannot get worse. Currently we are at a historic low. But even if the government in Berlin changes, so long as the [Justice and Development Party] AKP remains in power in Turkey I don’t think Germany will enter into a serious dialogue with Ankara.

Who is Faruk Şen?


Turkish–German ties at historic low, says scholar Faruk Şen


A major figure in the field of Turkish-German relations, Professor Faruk Şen studied at the Istanbul German High School before heading to Germany in the 1970s.

After studying management at Münster University, he worked on the academic staff of Bamberg and Essen universities.

Between 1980 and 1985 he directed courses preparing migrant youths for professional and social life in Germany.

Şen established the Foundation of Turkey Research Center in Bonn in 1985 and continued working on Turkish communities in Germany.

He returned to Turkey a few years ago and is currently the head of the Turkish European Foundation for Education and Scientific Studies. 

Şen has written several books and articles on economics, social science and immigration in three languages, including English.