Ali Yurttagül
Nov 07 2017

A man who can talk Turkish to Ankara: Cem Özdemir

Cem Özdemir has been a well-known and loved name for many years. For decades, he was a symbol of the Turkish second and third-generation immigrants who rose up in German society to make their voices heard: “We’re here too!”

But Özdemir did not stay boxed up in this symbolic role. He rose up in the Greens to become the party’s co-chair. And in coalition negotiations currently taking place in Berlin, all seats – other than Merkel as chancellor – are up for grabs.

These days, Özdemir is one of three or four people being discussed to fill important posts such as minister of foreign affairs and minister of finance. He recently made it to the middle of the list of the 10 most popular politicians, and his place there is rising. Those waiting to see him make his mark on German politics in the coming years will not be disappointed.

The German elections in September led to a political shake-up. Though all the economic data was positive, standards of living improving, and there were no major crises, the parties of the governing grand coalition suffered significant setbacks. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) lost 8.5 percent of the vote and her coalition partners, the Social Democrat Party (SPD), lost 5.2 percent.

SPD support dropped to just 20 percent and party chair Martin Schulz, believing voters had delivered a message, has closed the doors to a possible coalition with the CDU/CSU.

For this reason, Merkel is looking for at least two coalition partners., most likely the Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).

One of the reasons for Merkel’s election setback was allowing some 1 million Syrian refugees into Germany through Turkey in 2015. That is likely to lead to a tougher stance on immigration.

It would be naïve though to expect any major developments in foreign policy or foreign politics related to Turkey.

As for Turks, they have a special place in Germany. I use “Turks” to mean the approximately 3 million people of Turkish origin living in Germany. Their futures and fortunes are intertwined with Germany’s, but they still have close cultural and sentimental connections with Turkey.

Of this Turkish-origin population, more than half are German citizens and most of them maintain their Turkish citizenship. In Turkey’s April constitutional referendum, Germany was an electoral district and the Turkish referendum was one of the most discussed topics. Germans learned what evet means yes and hayır means no.

Turkish politics and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became a subject of debate in the German election after he asked German voters not to vote for the CDU, the SPD, or the Greens. But no one understood his message in Germany as it seemed Erdoğan had asked voters to support the extreme right, the extreme left, or the liberals.

In Ankara, because there are advisors who properly understand Europe and Germany and because there is no one willing to say “Sir, no. Interfering directly in this country’s election process does not befit a president. This is a country with which we do approximately 26 percent of our foreign trade.” Relations with Germany took another hit. Merkel, Schulz, and Özdemir opposed the intervention in the clearest language.

Yes, it is possible to document this and other examples of German–Turkish relations bottoming out. Even though it is difficult to understand to what end Erdoğan characterises two-thirds of the German electorate as “anti-Turkey,” it is not difficult to predict the results: for the new coalition to “open a new page” in relations, it will not be easy to get around the existing resentment.

Merkel had a close and warm relationship with Turkish former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. They reached an understanding on migrants and she promised visa-free travel to Turkish citizens. The economic implications of a visa-free travel relationship between Turkey and the EU were tremendous, and it was an historic step. It did not happen. Erdoğan was invited only once, in 2004, to an EU summit, and neither as prime minister or as president did he ever return.

Three Turkey-EU summits and visa-free travel are not “normal”. Davutoğlu became a victim of his own success. He had already become a threat through his transparency initiatives, and he had to go. Erdoğan finds it hard to grasp why this process was possible with Davutoğlu, but not with himself. But it is not difficult to understand.

If we look closely at Turkey’s domestic politics since Davutoğlu’s forced resignation in May 2016 and the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, where people like Osman Kavala – members of Turkey’s most liberal business circles – are arrested and the press is under scrutiny, it is not difficult to see the issues that cloud a dialogue with Europe.

With arrested journalists and thousands of people’s property confiscated awaiting court decisions, Germany and Europe cannot ignore the political reality that there is no rule of law in Turkey, even if the AKP were to return to its early years of effective, measured, and sensitive politics. But it is probably too late.

Coalition negotiations in Germany are ongoing, but among the names being discussed as a possible foreign minister, one of them is Özdemir. If this possibility becomes a reality, there would be the advantage of Ankara listening to Europe in Turkish.

In Turkish, would it be a monologue between Turkey and Europe, or would it return to a dialogue?

I’m not sure. In any case, the problem isn’t language; it is values.