Although relations between the EU and Turkey have become increasingly fractious, Berlin’s ties with Ankara, remain on track. Despite occasional rifts, both countries have found ways to keep relations functional thanks to the pragmatic approach of former Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Merkel and Erdogan had developed focused and complex personal ties that were cooperative yet critical. Their unique bond had assured a stable and firm relationship between the two countries even when Turkey was under a crossfire barrage from other EU states.
Merkel and Erdogan had developed focused and complex personal ties that were cooperative yet critical.
However, Tarik Basbugoglu, Ph.D. Candidate at Glasgow Caledonian University and Turkey expert, believes that Merkel and Erdogan weren’t in fact as close as they appeared to be. Although Basbugoglu agrees that the Merkel administration aimed to pursue a pacifying relationship with Erdogan, he doesn’t believe there was a strong personal relationship between the two leaders.
Basbugoglu recalls that Merkel did not want to alienate Turkey when Turkey-EU relations struggled during the refugee crisis (2015) and Eastern Mediterranean tensions (2020). Instead, Merkel resisted the economic sanctions applied against Turkey by European nations like France and Greece.
Luigi Scazzieri, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform (CER) focusing on European foreign and security policy, is concerned about the current absence of a personal link. “But there is no reason why the new Chancellor Scholz and Erdogan won’t also be able to build a relationship over time,” he told Inside Arabia.
Much of this will depend on how the new German coalition intends to approach Turkey in the future. Although Merkel vowed for Germany’s relations with Turkey to remain stable, it is uncertain whether the new government will share the same inclination. In the past, the new coalition expressed concern over human rights issues and heavily criticized Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy approaches in the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Mediterranean regions.
“The new government considers Erdogan’s leadership as an authoritarian government, so they might not want to create a strong personal relationship with [him],” Basbugoglu told Inside Arabia. This is especially true for the Greens, who might want to restrict German military exports to Turkey because of its objectionable policies in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan. Moreover, Basbugoglu thinks that the German public generally does not trust the German-Turkish relationship.
“The new government considers Erdogan’s leadership as an authoritarian government…”
Scazzieri believes that tensions would rise if Germany was more critical of Turkey’s democratic and human rights violations. “This will especially be true if Turkey responds to German criticism in ways that adds fuel to the fire, as was the case with the threat to expel 10 Western ambassadors.”
Since the agreement signed by the three-party coalition promises a principled and value-based approach in several policy areas, Germany may insist on rule of law and human rights policies. This decision could upset Turkey given its unwillingness to implement European Court of Human Rights decisions even as it still hopes to join the EU block someday.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of German Marshall Fund’s office in Ankara, told Inside Arabia that, compared to Merkel, who preferred to communicate her criticisms privately, the new German government will be more vocal when denouncing Turkey’s autocratization. However, Unluhisarcikli does not expect dramatic changes in Germany and Turkey ties given their strong economic and societal bonds.
According to Amanda Paul, a Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Center, the fact that Germany has such a large Turkish diaspora community is also an important consideration when defining the structure of future relations. Paul reports that Chancellor Scholz wants to avoid any serious disruption to this rather complicated relationship. Scholz wants to strengthen ties and uses the Chancellor Schroeder era (1998–2005) as an example of how he hopes things will go.
However, Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere, a Project Manager for the Berghof Foundation’s Turkey “Regional Peace Support” Program, explained that the Greens and Free Democratic Party (FDP) want to intensify the support for civil society and broaden the dialogue with the opposition. Both parties are more critical and outspoken regarding Turkey’s authoritarian policies. Therefore, according to Paul, some in the coalition have demanded change in the way Berlin engages with Ankara regarding military exports, migration, and human rights.
But according to Kristian Brakel, a Foreign Policy Analyst on the Middle East and Turkey and Head of Office for the Heinrich Böll Foundation Turkey, the German approach to Ankara will ultimately depend on changes within Turkey. “If anything in Turkey’s domestic or foreign policy happens that puts it back on the German agenda, the current government would be under more pressure to take a more hardline approach. Meanwhile, people might think that 2023 elections in Turkey might bring a difference and are worth waiting out,” Brakel told Inside Arabia.
The German approach to Ankara will ultimately depend on changes within Turkey.
Nevertheless, Güzeldere observes that a pragmatic approach would be very unpopular among Greens and Free Democratic Party (FDP) voters, while a more critical approach would be unpopular with corporate leaders, export organizations, and tourism businesses. With around three million people with Turkish roots living in the country, “a worsening of the bilateral relations would also have negative consequences for the domestic situation in Germany, alienating at least some of the German-Turks. All these factors have to be taken into account,” he told Inside Arabia.
The policies of the new government will also depend on Turkey’s regional policies, remarks Basbugoglu. If Turkey continues its unilateralist actions in the East Mediterranean and Syria, the new government could be tougher against Turkey. However, Basgugoglu insists that to prevent regional instability at the borders of Europe, the new coalition government is unlikely to create tensions with Turkey. Germany also needs Turkish support against a possible Russian military intervention against Ukraine.
Paul predicts that Turkey’s recent reconciliation with several Middle Eastern countries it had previously been at odds with, including the UAE, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, may reduce EU criticism to a certain degree. Even though Turkey’s policy towards Syria and Iraq remains unchanged. So, further criticism can be expected from the EU, including Germany, in this respect — particularly should Ankara carry out a new military intervention.
Scazzieri and other observers believe that there is likely to be more continuity than change as Germany will try to maintain a civil relationship with Turkey in areas of common interest including economic ties, migration, and foreign policy. While the Greens and the Social Democratic Party have criticized the migration deal with Turkey on human rights grounds. Indeed, Turkey is hosting nearly four million refugees, minimizing hence the number of people who would otherwise have made their way to the EU.
There is likely to be more continuity than change as Germany will try to maintain a civil relationship with Turkey.
Paul notes that for Germany, “which was one of only a handful of countries that took a significant number of Syrian refugees, it is crucial to continue to have meaningful cooperation with Turkey on migration.” Currently, this debate doesn’t just include Syrian refugees but also the legions of migrants from Afghanistan and the Sahel region of Burkina Faso that are the result of new security challenges like climate change.
A similar approach can be expected from the rest of Europe. In Brakel’s view, the EU’s appetite for a radically-altered course is small. However, given the upcoming French election campaign, Macron might be interested in being more publicly critical of Turkey as well. If Berlin is willing to not stand in Macron’s way, this might bring about some change. Otherwise, all sides are relatively content with the current status quo.
The EU usually tries to find a balance between values and interests. Paul recalls that this was the case under Merkel. “One could hardly say she was soft on Turkey… it was Merkel that said Turkey should have a privileged partnership with the EU rather than membership even before she became Chancellor.” This balance of values and interests will probably be maintained by the new leadership. To do anything else would be short-sighted and may have negative consequences for Germany and the rest of Europe.