Germany’s red-carpet welcome for Turkey’s Erdoğan was a mistake

Wow! What a show! Military honours, the red carpet, and a state banquet: Germany received Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan like a king. Inside the German president’s modest palace in Berlin, Erdoğan declared that he wished to “completely leave behind all the problems and to create a warm environment between Turkey and Germany". 

So far, so good. But why then would tens of thousands of people protest the visit? Why would the German parliament have a debate in which hardly any speaker expressed support for this show? Why did most German politicians decide not to attend the state dinner, including Chancellor Angela Merkel?

The reasons are manifold, pertinent, and have nothing to do with the Turkish nation, the Turkish people and the emotional ties that bind so many Germans, both with and without Turkish roots, to Turkey.

They have everything to do, however, with politics, and, more specifically, with Erdogan’s policies. Although Turkey remains an important partner and a member of NATO, a large gap has emerged between Germany, Turkey and the EU member states regarding the rule of law, press freedom, human rights, the protection of minorities, and the shrinking spaces for civil society because of Turkey’s constant misuse of its anti-terror legislation. 

With the introduction of a presidential democracy, Turkey has abolished the checks and balances that characterise the political systems of Western nations. 

In Turkey today, meaningful safeguards against authoritarian rule no longer exist. More than 150,000 people have been taken into custody, 78,000 were formally arrested and more than 110,000 civil servants have been dismissed.

While those facts and figures are widely known, it is less known that more than 30 German citizens cannot fly home because they are forbidden to do so by the Turkish government. Five of them are even imprisoned. To many members of the Bundestag, it seemed extremely insensitive for the German government to treat the man responsible for these detentions to a state dinner while several dozen compatriots suffer from grave abuse of their fundamental rights.

Obviously, it is well known in Germany that Erdoğan will need outside help to stabilise the Turkish economy. At the same time, he was asking for Germany to extradite Can Dündar and other so-called terrorists. 

Just before the visit, his government even launched an app that makes it easier for Turks abroad to denounce those they see as traitors to Turkish law enforcement agencies. With more than 3 million people of Turkish origin living in Germany, the potential harm this does to social peace cannot be overestimated and its direct link to the state visit was perceived as a slap in the face by many. 

One German newspaper was particularly brutal in its assessment of the visit. It wrote that Erdoğan “came as a beggar and behaved like a bully”.

So where do we go from here? 

The most recent figures suggest that Turkey’s economic outlook is darkening even further. The best chance for an improvement has vanished, though. The deepening of the Customs Union with the EU looks unrealistic for now while the prospect of EU membership has disappeared completely. 

As for economic relief, therefore, Ankara should turn to the IMF as quickly as possible – not to develop a full-blown programme, but to find ways how to avoid just that. 

As for relations with Europe, instead of stubbornly insisting on a full accession to the EU that will never happen, Turkey should finally agree to end the failed accession talks and replace them with a comprehensive association agreement focusing on economic cooperation, innovation, industrial exchanges, know-how transfers, the Customs Union, visa-free travel as well as provisions on shared geopolitical challenges such as the ongoing war in Syria and the fight against terrorism. 

As far as human rights and civil liberties are concerned, the idea that EU accession talks would give the EU a lever in favour of liberal, secular Turks and that that would strengthen their position inside Turkey has unfortunately been disproven. So it will be necessary to remind Turkey of her obligations as a member of the Council of Europe and a signatory of the UN conventions on human rights and civil liberties. 

And as far as the practicalities of diplomatic dialogue are concerned, the German government should be reminded that constant talks with Turkey are a requirement, but that they should be conducted in a way that realistically reflects the difficult state of the relationship. 

The spectacular state visit clearly was a mistake for which the German government is to blame just as much as Erdoğan. At least, he can now point to the wonderful images and tell his fellow countrymen that everything is just fine. 

It is not.

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

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