No other relationship in Europe is as crucial for Turkey as its ties with Germany. Over the past few decades, in trying to meander its way through European politics, Ankara has usually found in Berlin a steady and straight-talking partner. The two countries have generally supported similar goals in the Middle East, in international organizations like NATO, and, once upon a time, Germany was a key supporter of Turkey’s reform process and accession to the EU. What made the relationship even more special was the fact that Germany is home to the largest expat Turkish community in the world, elevating the friendship to something beyond a simple bilateral transaction.
In spite of all this, the Turkish-German relationship has come under multiple strains over the past year, in parallel with Turkey’s domestic problems and weakening ties with the West. Only a year ago, it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ahmet Davutoglu, the German-speaking Turkish prime minister at the time, who negotiated the monumental refugee deal between Ankara and Brussels – a deal which not only provided an anchor between Turkey and the EU but had the promise of “re-energizing” Turkey’s moribund accession process.
Fast forward a year and Turkey’s relations with the European Union are crumbling, German media refers to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a “Diktator”, and Turkey’s media – at least its increasingly shrill pro-government news outlets – are describing Germany as a “terrorism-sponsoring” state, a “PKK-lover” and a nation bent on weakening Turkey. As Berlin voices criticism of Turkey’s declining human rights record and its crackdown on Kurds and dissidents following the failed military coup in July, Ankara reacts by upping the anti-German rhetoric in its version of “alt-right” media and sending symbolic political messages— such as restricting the access of German politicians to visit German troops at Incirlik airbase or trying to organize pro-Erdogan rallies across Germany.
In short, Germany, once deemed as Turkey’s most solid ally in Europe, has emerged as the ultimate “Frenemy” – both a friend and an enemy, an indispensable but a hated ally.
It is difficult – but essential— to separate the cacophony of opinion from facts in looking at the Berlin-Ankara axis. Events that are relatively small in bilateral affairs seem to get disproportionate attention from the Turkish public and have set the tone in public diplomacy. Last week, for example, Erdogan was upset at the German police’s treatment of a key ally – the deputy head of the Turkish Parliament who had lost her passport on a trip to Berlin. Ankara retaliated by extending the airport security search for four German diplomats heading home – long enough so that they would miss their flights.
Yet the chest-thumping doesn’t necessarily mean much in real political terms. These mediagenic incidents are enough to poison the public discourse –but hardly shake the fundamentals of cooperation between the two countries. Despite the daily barrage of anti-German populism, government-to-government relations are largely unaffected. At the end of the day, Germany is still the leading partner for Ankara in charting out a course – or a potential soft exit—in its tortuous EU accession process. The refugee deal negotiated by Merkel is firmly in place. Germany is still the top export market for Turkish goods. And German troops operate out of Turkish bases in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Moving forward, this uncomfortable “compartmentalization” between the public and the political will likely continue – with Ankara treating Berlin as a key negotiating partner on all things EU-related, but still lashing out in the public discourse. In the run up to German elections and an impending referendum for constitutional change to give Erdogan enhanced powers, that gap can only grow. As has been the case in the last few elections, anti-Western and anti-European themes will serve as a key theme in the government’s campaign rhetoric. But Turkey will be hesitant to really strain relations with Germany. There is a sense in Ankara that the struggling Turkish economy cannot take any more hits and that it will ultimately take leadership from Berlin to realize a more grounded framework for relations with Europe.
But on the surface, the difficulties and the back-and-forth will likely continue well into 2017.
It is hard to imagine that the human rights criticism from German media and officials will abate any time soon. Turkey remains a polarized society and to some Turks, despite the constant barrage of criticism in pro-government media, Germany is a safe haven in difficult political times. Numbers for Turkish asylum seekers, including top-level bureaucrats who are fleeing the post-coup purges, have gone up rapidly since the summer, and there is reportedly a new wave of Turkish academics and students seeking a future in German universities.
Ultimately, this is tantamount to exporting Turkey’s internal divisions and neurosis to Germany. Germany itself will be a major battleground in the upcoming referendum in Turkey, since support for Erdogan’s proposed changes hovers around 45-48% and votes from AKP supporters in Germany will be crucial in overcoming the threshold. Home to divided and rival constituencies of pro-AKP Turks, Kurds, Alawites and secularists, Germany can expect to feel the brunt of Turkey’s elections in the first half of 2017 – and that is before Germany’s own elections later in the year where Turkey will in turn be a key theme.
Because Germany has deeper roots than any other European nation in Turkish society, it is also the country that is bearing the brunt of Turkey’s domestic problems and the downturn in its relations with the EU.
On a philosophical level, there is a glass-half-full aspect to all of this – namely that the two countries are so intricately connected that they cannot afford to walk out of this relationship. Despite the toxicity in the air, there is deep interconnectedness on economic, social and political levels.
In a year of global insecurity, and with elections on the horizon, the Turkish-German relationship is more important than ever for Turkey’s stability and its place in the West. But with high turbulence coming up in 2017, perhaps all that we can do for now is to buckle up and hope for a soft landing.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.