What to expect from Erdoğan’s visit to Germany
Germany, Turkey’s one-time arch-villain, is on the cusp of becoming
its friend of sorts, at least if you believe Treasury and Finance
Minister Berat Albayrak, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law
and heir apparent.
“We have entered a new period,” Albayrak remarked after wrapping up
talks with top German officials such Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and
Economy and Energy Minister Peter Altmaier. Albayrak has reason to be
upbeat. The Turkish lira, teetering over the abyss last month, is now
recovering against major currencies. And German bigwigs seem to be
offering full support, whatever that means in actual terms, for
But Albayrak’s Germany visit is only the prequel to the real deal: his
boss, Erdoğan is rolling into town, too. As part of the three-day
state visit, he is also dropping off in Cologne, to inaugurate the
largest mosque in the Federal Republic. The tone in the loyal Turkish
media is optimistic, a far cry from June 2017, when they castigated
German authorities for refusing to authorise a rally headlined by the
Turkish president. Let bygones be bygones is the order of the day.
There is plenty that Germany and Turkey have to talk about. German
business has a large stake in the Turkish economy. The 2016 refugee
deal, renewed at a meeting of the 28 EU heads of government in late
June, is a top priority as well.
There is consternation that the number of asylum seekers could surge once again, should Turkey fail to avert an offensive against the rebel-controlled enclave of Idlib by the Syrian government and its allies. That could have knock-on effects
in German domestic politics. The far-right Alternative for Germany
(AfD) is running neck-to-neck in national polls with the Social
Democrats, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s junior partner in the grand
coalition governing in Berlin.
Bavaria is scheduled to hold provincial elections on Oct. 14. The
Christian Social Union, the local sister party of Merkel’s Christian
Democrats, has been feeling the heat as the AfD gathers strength, with
about of a quarter of voters likely to switch sides, according to some
polls. The bottom line is that politicians in Berlin and Munich have a
clear interest in keeping Turkey on side as much as possible.
Though Erdoğan is carrying an olive branch (no, not of the Afrin
variety), there are obvious limits to how far Turkey’s Westpolitik can
go. True to her instincts, Merkel will act in a circumspect manner.
The last thing she wants is criticism that she is cosying up to much
to an authoritarian leader.
There will be kind words, but also a critical note here and there. Before meeting Erdoğan Merkelreiterated that though Germany is interested in economically strong Turkey human rights will be part of the talks. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, former leader of the Social Democrats, warned that it is too early to talk of a reset. But the Turkish president is, in all likelihood, not worried. The very fact he is received by the Germans
is already a win.
Secondly, warming bilateral ties notwithstanding, much of what is on
Turkey’s shopping list is subject to collective decision-making at the
EU level. Will Germany relax its stance on issues such as visa
liberalisation or upgrading the EU-Turkey customs union? Not until
Erdoğan makes the first move, and then again, much more likely on the
customs union rather than letting millions of Turks travel visa-free
to the Schengen area. Imagine the AfD’s response to that.
EU institutions do not appear enthusiastic about Turkey. The European
Parliament’s budget committee this week agreed to a proposal to cancel
70 million euros in pre-accession assistance to Turkey as it did not
meet EU conditions on improving the rule of law. The full parliament
is to vote on the measure on Oct. 3.
That might be a drop in the ocean, especially compared to the 3 billion euros to be disbursed to Ankara in a second tranche under the refugee deal, but the committee’s view reflects that across the union. The parliament vote indicates that the chances of an European bailout for Turkey, should the push come to shove and Ankara declines to go the usual IMF route, are close to zero. The decision comes as a warning yet another war of words, this time between Turkey and Brussels, is not out of question.
In a way, we have been here before with talk of special relationships
with individual European powers as a partial remedy for the impasse in Turkey’s relationship with the EU as a whole. In May this year, as
Erdoğan landed in London, Brexit Britain appeared to be Turkey’s
newfound best friend. Still earlier, in January, it was French
President Emmanuel Macron rolling the red carpet for the Turkish
leader in Paris. The Elysée Palace is still speaking in favour of
engaging and building a strategic relationship with Turkey.
But, at least for now, the lofty words have not translated into
substantive policy. For example, the much-touted four-way summit on
Syria bringing together Turkey, Russia, France and Germany does not appear to have made much headway towards taking place. It is possible Erdoğan and Merkel might break some news on this after their tête-a-tête, but I for one am not holding my breath.