Did Turkey’s Erdoğan return from Berlin empty-handed?

Let me start answering the question with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's own words from a speech he made at the opening ceremony of Cologne's Central Mosque, which was built by an Islamic group with close ties to the Turkish state:

I would like to thank once again my friend German President (Frank-Walter) Steinmeier for his kind invitation. I would also like to thank the people of Cologne who welcomed us for such a beautiful occasion. I had a very successful, and fruitful visit during such a critical time with German officials. We handled issues of utmost concern for the two countries both with Steinmeier and (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel during our meetings.

With these sentences, Erdoğan drew a very positive picture of the state visit.

Bear in mind that before his visit Erdoğan expressed a desire to put the two countries to put their past troubled relationship behind them.

"We expect Germany, one of the leading states in the European Union, to play a helpful and constructive part during Turkey's process for visa liberalisation, updating the customs union and reviving accession talks that will benefit both Turkey and the EU," he said.

Does the statement "I had a very successful, and fruitful visit during such a critical time with German officials," reflect the truth?

Perhaps we can find in the answer with Erdoğan's new friend, Steinmeier. One wonders whether Turkish pro-government media will now use the term friend to replace their previously favourite modifier "Nazi relic".

Steinmeier said

A single visit is not enough to restore normality. However, it could be a start, the start of a path that leads, via many tangible steps, to a new trust." He stressed his expectations by saying: "We hope that Turkey will return to the path of reconciliation two years after the trauma of the attempted coup. We hope that it will be possible to reconcile its stark social differences on the basis of human rights and the rule of law … As we discussed this morning in detail, I am, as president of this country, concerned about German citizens who are imprisoned in Turkey for political reasons, and I am also concerned about Turkish journalists, trade unionists, lawyers, intellectuals and politicians who remain behind bars. Mr. President, I trust that you will understand that we cannot simply gloss over this issue.

With these words, Steinmeier pushed the boundaries of diplomatic courtesy during the official state dinner at Bellevue Palace.

Erdoğan, visibly uncomfortable, answered by saying:

We talked about these issues between us earlier. There was no need to talk about them again.

This exchange showed that everything is not all peachy between the two countries.

What pushed Steinmeier beyond the boundaries of the protocol is not Erdoğan's declaration that German Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Greens are "enemies of Turkey", nor his exhortation to his Turkish supporters in Germany not to vote for these parties.

We do not know whether Erdogan’s advisors conveyed the German press coverage of the visit or the disapproval of Bundestag deputies to the Turkish president. But Steinmeier wanted to let the public know that there are fundamental differences between the two states, such as on the understanding of freedom of the press and the rule of law.

Because, as a matter of fact, for three days the German press did cover Erdoğan, but concentrated on Turkish journalists such as Can Dündar who was forced to flee Turkey for Germany, and German commentators questioned their government's decision to host Erdoğan.

Both Steinmeier and Merkel felt the need to clarify their positions under this pressure.

The German government diverted traffic in central Berlin and took every possible precaution for the safety of the official guest, hence Erdoğan did not see the thousands of protesters who filled the streets protesting his visit with banners saying, "You're not welcome."

The opposition not only criticised the German government's decision to invite Erdoğan for an official state visit, but protested the formal dinner hosted by the German president.

Despite all of this, the visit happened. Berlin repeatedly emphasised its willingness to restart a dialogue with Turkey and the importance German politicians placed on the Turkish economic development in the future.

Therefore, even if Erdoğan's visit to Berlin did not achieve many of its stated goals, it definitely was not fruitless, it was an outstanding first step to re-establish bi-lateral relations between two countries.

For example, Ankara strengthened its hand against Moscow and Tehran on the refugees and Syrian issues. A more comprehensive dialogue on the future and reconstruction of Syria with Russia, France and Germany and Turkey might prove to be an essential factor for the future of the potential conflict in Idlib. Merkel particularly emphasised this possibility at the joint press conference and said that these four countries would meet in October.

Iran and Russia played a part in the destruction of Syria, but they do not have the capacity to re-build the country. Germany, France and Turkey can be all cooperate and play an important part in this effort.

In a joint press conference with Merkel, Erdoğan promised to fulfil the remaining six criteria for visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens quickly. But I am not holding my breath, since one criterion for visa liberalisation requires Turkey to abolish its anti-terrorism laws.

If you are getting the sense that issues such as press freedom, human rights are determining the direction of Turkey-Germany relations, it means that I am not making myself clear.

Yes, the Germany public is sensitive to these issues, and Berlin cannot ignore this. But the visit took place despite protests, and even the critical press emphasised that maintaining bilateral relations with Turkey is in Germany's benefit in the longer term. The deadlock is in the emphasis on the rule of law.

Let me explain.

The slow-down of German investment in Turkey and Germany's shyness about providing financial support is directly connected with the rule-of-law, or lack thereof, in Turkey. Unfortunately, Turkey cannot be considered a country governed by the rule-of-law anymore. The courts are not independent, nor impartial. We can even go a step further and say that Turkey's judicial structure has been transformed into a political party instrument under the control of the president.

Germans saw this was the case when detained Die Welt journalist Deniz Yücel was freed after a deal with Ankara, but similarly, dysfunctional judicial decisions take place in Turkey almost daily.

The Turkish government can, on flimsy evidence, arrest people or confiscate their property. Institutions have collapsed in Turkey, there is no rule-of-law. Ministers dare not lift a finger without permission from the presidential palace. Please do not read these sentences as my opinions, they are from German briefing notes and reports.

There is another important dimension to the issue of the rule of law related to the EU process and economic and financial assistance.

There are no checks and balances in Turkey anymore. I am not talking about parliament's lack of control over ministries and the executive. Almost all institutions that are vital for checks and balances over the government's actions have collapsed. The Presidential Palace is ruling by executive orders, and these orders are creating chaos in the economy.

The public tenders issue is similarly a mess, there are no checks on public procurements.

Turkey has reached such a point in the pervasiveness of public corruption that corruption is not even considered theft anymore.

The issue of Germany's economic and financial assistance to Turkey was at the centre of the second Erdoğan-Merkel meeting on Saturday morning. The parties did not talk about this issue during their joint press conference. But Merkel's announcement of a working group meeting between the German Department of Economy officials and their Turkish counterparts in Turkey in October confirms the parties have an ongoing dialogue on this issue.

But rest assured, Germany has linked the issue of financial and economic assistance to the re-establishment of the rule of law in Turkey and the strengthening of checks and balances. Since Berlin cannot audit Turkey, I believe it very likely the German government suggested Turkey work with the IMF as a prerequisite.

These two prerequisites are very hard for Erdoğan to accept. When Germany says the rule-of-law, it means genuinely independent courts and laws.

IMF supervision is a thorny issue for Erdoğan as well. Just a few months before local elections in March, Erdoğan cannot possibly knock on the IMF's door and ask for help. Not only psychologically, but also for his political future. Germany, on the other hand, cannot extend even one euro of aid to Turkey without IMF supervision, both because such an action requires political and parliamentary approval, but also because of ethical and cultural reasons.

If we go back to the question of whether Erdoğan came back empty-handed from Germany, after visits to Paris and London, the official visit in Germany was undoubtedly a significant political and diplomatic success for Erdoğan.

So it would be wrong to say that he came back empty-handed. But it is also too soon to say that he achieved all or a few of his goals.

Having an open channel of communication with European countries is very valuable for Turkey. And we hope this visit is the first step towards the release of detained politicians like Selahattin Demirtaş, journalists like Ahmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak, activists like Osman Kavala and prove the importance of democracy and the rule-of-law to AKP members.

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