Erdoğan’s visit may ease some of Turkey’s problems with Germany

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will visit Germany this week on his way back from the UN General Assembly in New York. He will meet his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Angela Merkel. He will also attend the official opening of a mosque built in Cologne by Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate. 

The visit is important because it will be a first step in the normalisation of relations that have remained at a less than satisfactory level for years.

As in Erdogan’s previous visits to Germany, opponents of his policies and Kurds living in Germany are likely to organise anti-Erdoğan and anti-Turkey demonstrations. Some political figures from the German far-right party AfD and Linke have already announced they will not attend a reception hosted by Steinmeier for Erdoğan, but this will only help reduce tension in the atmosphere.

The German daily Frankfurter Rundschau said the more than 7,000 German companies operating in Turkey would feel comfortable only if the rule of law prevailed and that Merkel should ask Erdoğan to secure it. 

Despite a slew of points on which the two leaders have divergent views, they have common positions on their opposition to U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies on many subjects. When the United States took measures that will affect negatively Turkey’s economy, Merkel was the first high-profile figure to say that Germany would like to see an economically prosperous Turkey. This was followed by another positive statement by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas who said Germany wanted to normalise relations with Turkey.   

The official announcement said Erdoğan’s agenda in Germany included a wide range of political, economic, security, defence, cultural and social issues, but the focus will probably be on Syrian refugees, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) activities in Germany and economic relations between Turkey and Germany. Erdoğan may ask Merkel to tighten control on the activities in Germany of the PKK, to extradite many activists that Turkey characterises as supporters of terror and call for more diligence dealing with the various problems of the 3 million people of Turkish origin living in Germany, especially the problems stemming from the practice of Islam in Germany by Turkish citizens. 

Merkel has not turned a deaf ear to such problems in the past. She will probably listen again this time to the extent that German laws and public opinion tolerates. Erdoğan knows that if something is to be done to revive moribund Turkey-EU relations, he has to start by persuading Merkel.

One of the concrete subjects the two leaders will discuss is the question of updating Turkey’s Customs’ Union Agreement (CUA) with the EU. The current agreement works against Turkey’s commercial interests, because industrial commodities of third countries with which the EU has signed a CUA enter Turkish market without paying customs duties, while Turkish exporters have to pay customs duties to export their goods to the markets of these third countries. 

The EU has so far resisted taking any step on this issue and tries to maintain this advantageous position as long as possible. During a recent visit by three Turkish ministers to Germany, German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said they can work for progress in this area through a step-by-step approach. In diplomatic jargon, this means that Germany is going to drag its feet on this subject at this point in time. 

Merkel must have her own list of subjects to be raised in the meeting with Erdoğan. Germany always voices its comments on the deterioration of democracy in Turkey, the poor record on human rights and freedom of expression. Erdoğan is not expected to accept this criticism because he believes that if there are some restrictions in these fields, it is due to the critical juncture that Turkey is crossing after the coup attempt of July 2016. 

The economic aspect of the visit will be handled directly by business circles. Erdoğan will address the CEOs of several big German companies. The visit will not solve all the pending problems between Turkey and Germany, but it may achieve substantive progress in the right direction. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.