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German-Turkish tensions in a collapsing Jamaica coalition

While the Turkish narrative in the close-alliance-cum-uneasy-stand-off between Germany and Turkey remained constant over the past decade, momentous changes have now occurred to the German political system.

lead Federal chairman of The Greens, Cem Oezdemir in conversation with chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) during failing exploratory talks between the CDU, CSU, FDP and Green Party in Berlin, Germany, 10 November 2017. Gregor Fischer/Press Association. All rights reserved.After the September 2017 federal elections in Germany, the conservative Union parties, CDU/CSU, the liberal FDP party and the Green party set out to form the so-called Jamaica coalition government, which have failed after the liberal party withdrawal in mid-November and may lead to a minority coalition government (CDU/CSU and Green party). Ever since the 2002 federal election campaign, when the then German chancellor Gerhard Schröder was reelected, mainly because of his game-changing refusal to support the US’s Iraq invasion, contention over foreign policy has been absent from Berlin’s political competition. Hence, the Bundestag has predominantly seen largely unified positions, also with regard to Ankara. The political situation in Turkey and the combination of an electorally soaring populist radical-right challenger party and a deliberately oppositional Social Democratic party prophesy stormy times ahead for German-Turkish relations.

In the last decade or so, German foreign policy has been largely characterized by a broadly unified stance towards Turkey. Berlin perceived the first ten years of AKP rule as moderately positive. On the EU level, EU accession negotiations with Turkey commenced in 2005 and Germany, holding vast leverage in EU politics, proved to be far from vetoing the opening of accession talks. However, the authoritarian suppression of the 2013 Gezi protests in Istanbul darkened Germany’s view of Turkey; and its image of the then prime minister and current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was accordingly impaired.

From 2013 onwards, German politics has increasingly presented a united, critical shoulder-to-shoulder stance against the Turkish government concerning the unhappy state of democracy in Turkey. However, we now witness a significant deepening of EU-Turkey trade relations and political collaboration (EU-Turkey migration deal) in the framework of a recent and most salient political issue, namely migration and integration; while on the other hand, transnational blaming – to name some: mutual ‘Nazi’ accusations, the blocking of public appearances of AKP MPs in western European countries, the Armenian Genocide resolution of the German Bundestag, the Jan Böhmermann case – between Berlin and Ankara has flourished ever since the EU-Turkey migration deal was agreed in March 2016.

As of then, Turkey was expecting an imminent happy ending in terms of an EU visa-waiver deal for Turkish citizens. However, the EU wanted Turkey first to stick to the remaining criteria, one of which includes reforming Turkey’s highly contested anti-terror laws, which the AKP has abstained from liberalising. Apart from that, in light of the rise of a populist radical-right party in Germany and the (political) detention of German citizens in Turkey, the visa-waiver deal gathered huge symbolic weight in German domestic as well as foreign policy. Being left unresolved, this issue sparked many other political conflicts between Berlin and Ankara.

On the Turkish side, pro-European stances are based on a prolonged history across the Turkish political spectrum. Indeed, the Turkish narrative of marking a historical ‘bridge’ between Europe and Asia implies the notion of Turkey belonging, politically and culturally, to Europe. Especially, opposition parties have been keen to mobilise the electorate through a sound anti-governmental pro-Europe claim, habitually claiming that the government party would thwart Turkey’s relations with Europe or the West. Substantial pro-European (and pro-German especially) sentiments have been predominant in the past 50+ years within Turkish society.

The perceptions of Germany (also the EU), however, have changed rapidly in recent years. Before that, the historical German ally in the heart of Europe was esteemed the ‘old friend’ who will lobby within the EU in favour of Turkey’s EU accession. This image of Germany shifted drastically after vocal critics of Erdoğan arose. Nowadays, German chancellor Merkel is widely portrayed as a threat to Turkey and an insincere (western) foreign-power leader who claims to give democracy lectures but is herself resorting to anti-democratic political practices against Turkish politicians (e.g. the prohibition of election rallies in Germany), which, according to Erdoğan, stem from Germany’s bitter racist Holocaust past.

The Sèvres Syndrome

Ever since the AKP gained political power in Ankara, party leaders have injected a single dominant narrative into the Turkish public sphere, i.e. the Turkish people’s glorious resurrection story. One fundamental characteristic of political narratives is that they paint heartwarming romantic imagery of both the past and the future. Under AKP rule, the Turkish nation has been narrated as marching towards a bright and prosperous future; and, in fact, economically, Turkey has been prospering for some time. On the cultural level, neo-Ottomanism came into romantic bloom boosted by AKP leaders who interlaced neo-Ottomanism with Turkey’s most influential (foreign) policy driver: the Sèvres Syndrome. The latter runs parallel with and in contradistinction to substantial pro-European (and pro-German) stances in Turkey. It displays a popular belief in Turkish political culture that (western) foreign powers permanently forge sinister plans to undermine the rise of the Turkish nation. In such a political context, strong (not to say authoritarian) foreign-policy charges against western authorities engender strong emotional attachments to the nation among (reluctant and radical) nationalistic voters.

In fact, the Turkish government has been in constant need of domestic voter mobilization as, in recent years, one election after another has followed more referendums. In light of the Sèvres Syndrome, Turkish politics has always been tempted to diffuse conspiracies about domestic political opponents’ collaboration with (western) foreign powers that together aim to sell out the Turkish nation. After the step-by-step undermining of democratic checks and balances, and the detention of influential oppositional leaders, the AKP leaders have maintained a tight grip on defining internal and external threats to the Turkish nation.

They have made this target move in various directions in recent decades, while some aspects intersected: such as, the notion of some (former or current) elites, i.e. the Turkish military (Ergenekon case), the Kemalist elite and the Gülenist movement (especially in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt). Holding an absolute monopoly on the definitions of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ guys, and the bad guys’ (foreign) accomplices, AKP rule aggravates Berlin’s desire to reach out to Turkey and domestic German-Turks. Yet, any support for democrats in Turkey can be narrated as “western foreign power infiltration through Turkish collaborators”.

Logical reasoning suggests a preference for a sober over an optimistic approach to German-Turkish relations, since no less than three elections await the Turks in 2019. Among others (the federal and local elections), a possible game-changing presidency of no less than 15 years will be at stake.

How can Germany revise its foreign policy in relation to Turkey in such a contested and polarised political situation which, depending on whether you support or criticize the AKP leaders, may be depicted as either for or against the Turkish people? In a broader sense, in what direction are these trends in the national political context and mutual perception leading German-Turkish relations?

Cem Özdemir

AKP politician Mustafa Yeneroğlu recently got to the heart of what many experts believe: if a possible minority coalition government includes the Green party co-leader Cem Özdemir becoming the German foreign minister, then hard times for German-Turkish relations lie ahead.

In the past, Cem Özdemir has repeatedly come forward as a vocal critic of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in several contexts. In 2016, he played a key role when the German Bundestag voted on the Armenian Genocide resolution. Referring to those German-Turkish MPs in the Bundestag who voted in favour of recognition of the Armenian Genocide (with an unambiguous and specific focus on Cem Özdemir), Erdoğan called their Turkishness into question, charged them with possessing ‘defective blood’ (‘kanı bozuk’) and accused them of being no less than Germany-based extensions of domestic terror organisations.

If Germany chooses Cem Özdemir as its foreign minister, Turkey will frame that as a direct political affront. In Turkey’s view, such a move by Germany would mark an intentionally aggressive step against the Turkish people which fits the overall assumption, actively boosted by AKP leaders in the recent years, that the West is forging plans to impede the Turkish nation’s rise.

The second perception is interrelated with this first aspect: compartmentalising domestic politics is futile when both countries are so interwoven. Maintaining firm transnational trade or economic relations between Germany and Turkey is but one part of the multifaceted story. A more decisive part concerns the transnational political identities that emerged in the post-guestworker-treaty era. Hence, a major point is that Germany (or the EU) does not simply play out its soft power role vis-à-vis Turkey by requiring the latter to meet the Copenhagen criteria as it would do with regard to other EU member candidates. Rather both Germany and Turkey must necessarily take into account the fact that some three million Europe-based (1.8 million Germany-based) Turkish citizens are eligible to vote in Turkish elections – that is roughly 5 per cent of the general vote.

Some argue that there is a plausible rationale for Turks in Europe to support AKP rule: for a long time, they faced discrimination in western Europe, which is why Erdoğan’s glorious resurrection story of Turkey rising up against ‘the West’ keenly provokes their ethnic-cultural pride on an emotional level. True, this might apply to many. Yet, the other ‘48 per cent’ (a prominent political number in recent referenda) bonds well emotionally with oppositional Turkish groups in Europe (or Germany) since, in their view, Turkey is actually (and unfortunately) facing severe anti-democratic and cultural doom.

In any case, 2016 was evidence of the fact that Turkish immigrants in western Europe, especially in Germany, challenge obsolete clear-cut national distinctions between domestic and foreign policy. These people transnationally bond with the politics of their country of origin as well as their country of residence – either in favour of or against the leading Turkish government.

Ultimately, Mustafa Yeneroğlu is right in assuming German-Turkish relations will suffer if Cem Özdemir leads the German foreign ministry, since he would resonate in Turkish domestic politics as he has done in the past. However, Yeneroğlu deceives himself in believing that Turkey might be capable of protecting domestic policy from the involvement of Turks living abroad. Cem Özdemir, like many others, lives abroad yet has political rights in Turkey.

Germany and Turkey have to come to terms with these hard transnational facts; for manifold reasons, political rights transcend nation-state boundaries in many directions and, as part of ‘two peoples’ (Germany and Turkey), individuals and public actors own and make use of these political rights, such as participating in political debates and elections in both countries that they legally, politically and culturally belong to.

Pandora’s box

Thirdly, recent changes in the German political system provide fertile ground for heated German-Turkish political conflicts. In Turkey, AKP voters have been broadly mobilised by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strong (masculine) leader image along with his radical nationalistic narrative, i.e. he has attracted voters by banging on the table in the name of the Turkish people against the West (and internal ‘others’). Basically, the combination of these elements seems likely to exacerbate rather than allay Turkish foreign policy relating to the EU.

However, while the Turkish part of the story has remained constant over the past ten years, momentous changes have occurred recently in the German political system. On the one hand, the German far right has positioned itself anew in the form of a populist radical-right party (AfD) represented in the German Bundestag, while on the other hand, the Social Democrats (SPD) promptly opted out of building the next Grand Coalition after having achieved a miserable vote share.

Both the SPD and the AfD will scratch the surface of Berlin’s shoulder-to-shoulder stance vis-à-vis Ankara. During the electoral campaign, SPD party chairman Schulz clearly pronounced that Germany has to (and will) pursue a hawkish policy as regards Turkish President Erdoğan. At present, it seems very likely that the Social Democrats, if leading the opposition, will question any past and future deals with Turkey under AKP rule, and they will thus induce heated political contention over German and EU foreign policy related to Turkey. Moreover, the SPD might vocally align with democrats in Turkey against Turkish President Erdoğan, which runs strongly counter to the grain of the latters’ expectations from Berlin.

It seems highly possible that both phenomena will pose a litmus test for the minority coalition government, which is, on the one hand, dependent on trade arrangements and the migration deal with Turkey, while on the other hand, especially the Green party will push for sanctioning Turkey’s anti-democratic progress.

And the German political system’s new dissenter, the AfD party, is set to cater to ultra-conservative, reluctant radical-right and far-right voters on this political issue, as well. That is, AfD leaders will make strident calls for cutting all German ties to Turkey based on cultural justifications that display flourishing and well-established anti-Muslim discourses circulating within western Europe’s far right, i.e. alleged claims that Islam is incompatible with (western) democracy or that Turkey is a supporter of the IS cultural war against the Judeo-Christian West.

To complicate things, we can be sure that Turkish President Erdoğan will feel himself invited to join heated German foreign policy debates whenever Turkey is portrayed as anti-democratic since, in his view, democracy in Turkey came into force anew with the AKP party because his, and only his, party fully represents ‘the Turkish people’.

Vicious circles

How will Merkel navigate a heated foreign policy related to Turkey, notwithstanding noisy dissent that stems from within the minority coalition (CSU and Green party), the leading opposition SPD party, Germany’s new dissenter AfD party, transnational German-Turkish actors and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan?

Will she be able to maintain her sober differentiated integration approach towards Turkey, i.e. boosting trade and economic relations while approaching Turkey more flexibly with regard to the Copenhagen criteria, since Turkey’s membership hardly seems heading soon for cultural integration into the EU? So far, this relationship has been regarded as merely a close trade and political alliance.

Will Merkel’s dialogue and cooperation-oriented approach have to bite the bullet on such a contested battlefield of German-Turkish affairs or will she manage to maintain her reconciliation approach? Going beyond what all the combatants involved believe, German-Turkish (foreign) affairs will, crucially, be dependent on how German chancellor Angela Merkel succeeds in holding back all the belligerent men from banging their fists on the table and instead minimizing the drama which, in recent years, has repeatedly resulted in momentous vicious circles in the mutual casting of German-Turkish blame.

About the author

Özgür Özvatan currently works as a lecturer in Social and Political Science at the Humboldt University of Berlin and is a research fellow at the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research (BIM). He is a PhD candidate in the International Doctoral Program of the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences (BGSS). His research interest include European party politics, EU-Turkey relations, and the far-right.


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