'Nazis, Spies and Terrorists' Can the German-Turkish Relationship Be Saved?

In recent months, relations between Germany and Turkey have reached a new low. After a series of escalating spats, tourism and investment in the country have collapsed. Will it finally drive Turkish President Erdogan to change course?

DPA

By , , and Michael Sauga


They had a number of things in common -- their Turkish origins, their membership in the Green Party -- but today their positions couldn't be any further apart: Ozan Ceyhun is an adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan while Cem Özdemir, in his position as the co-head of Germany's Green Party, is one of the fiercest critics of the Turkish president.

In the nineties, Özdemir, 51, and Ceyhun, 56, fought together for migrants' rights in Germany and against religious fundamentalism -- Özdemir as a lawmaker in the German parliament, or Bundestag, and Ceyhun as an employee of the Ministry for Family Affairs of the state of Hesse in Wiesbaden. But as Özdemir climbed the ranks of his party to become co-chairman, Ceyhun became a member of the European Parliament, switched to the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and later joined Turkey's Justice and Development (AKP) party.

In Özdemir's view, Ceyhun is an opportunist serving an authoritarian regime. Meanwhile, Ceyhun accuses Özdemir of consciously trying to turn public opinion against Turkey. He has repeatedly criticized Özdemir on Turkish TV. He says the two of them are no longer in contact, but that they wouldn't have much to say to each other anyway.

The split between Özdemir and Ceyhun is also reflected on a larger scale in the relationship between Germany and Turkey, two countries closely linked by the almost 3 million Turkish-Germans, by business, by all the tourists who travel each year to the beaches of Izmir and Antalya. This rupture is not only taking place between Germans and Turks, but within the Turkish-German community, within political parties, families and groups of friends. There are disputes about the attempted coup of July 15, 2016, about the purging of the courts, the public authorities, armies and universities, about the question of whether Turkey is still a democracy or if it has already become a dictatorship.

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For a long time, Angela Merkel remained silent, even when Erdogan called German politicians "Nazis" and "terror helpers," had German journalists Deniz Yücel and Mesale Tolu imprisoned and refused to allow German lawmakers to visit German soldiers at the military bases in Incirlik and Konya, where German troops were stationed. The hope was that the president's rage would eventually exhaust itself, but the opposite happened: the Turkish actions became increasingly arbitrary. Then came the arrest of German human rights activist Peter Steudtner. At that point, at the latest, it became clear: This can't continue.

In response, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel announced a new direction for the German government's policy on Turkey. He strengthened travel warnings and is considering suspending German-government backed Hermes export credit guarantees for German companies that work together with Turkish businesses. He also wants the European Investment Bank to be more restrictive in its financing of projects in Turkey. In a July 24 letter to EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn, which DER SPIEGEL has seen, Gabriel wrote: "Fundamentally, the position should be that we are not striving for new business."

He also argued that EU pre-accession assistance should be decreased and restricted to the areas of democracy and rule of law, "so that they benefit Turkish civil society," and not the government in Ankara.

Gabriel stated the reason in unprecedentedly clear terms in his letter: Erdogan's policies were "in flagrant contradiction to our European system of values and require a clear response." Efforts to maintain a good relationship, he wrote, had been "answered with increasingly aggressive and unconstructive politics from Ankara," including the "disregard for constitutional principles and ever more rampant use of the charge of supporting terrorism without providing sufficient proof."

This indeed marks a turning point: A post-reunification German government has never repudiated an ally in such strong terms.

Erdogan has accused the German government of "espionage," and sees it as proof that the Germans are working on removing him from power. He threatened that Germany would get a response "for every display of a lack of respect."

Two Starkly Different Viewpoints

Greens co-chair Özdemir appeared in front of journalists in Berlin just a few hours after the arrest of Steudtner, the activist. He creased his forehead and pressed his lips together. "What comes next?" he asked. "Will Turkey also arrest business representatives? Or tourists?"

Özdemir is visibly agitated. He has done more than most other German politicians to help strengthen the relationship between the two countries. He once viewed Erdogan as a reformer, but now he is appalled by the developments in his parents' homeland. With every election win, says Özdemir, Erdogan has become more authoritarian. "Turkey is on its way to becoming a dictatorship," he says.

Özdemir also argues that the German government is partly responsible. When Turkey was pushing to get into the EU, he says, Merkel was only ready to offer it a "privileged partnership," weakening the powers pushing for reform in the country. He says Merkel only became interested in Turkey when the refugees began forcing their way through the country on their way to Germany, and she suddenly needed Erdogan as a bouncer. But, he says, this "policy of appeasement" must end. He argues EU accession negotiations should be frozen and EU payments stopped.

Ozan Ceyhun only smiles wearily when he is asked about those kinds of requests. "The Germans are wrong if they believe they can scare President Erdogan," he says. Ceyhan is sitting at the airport in Ankara, on his way to Brussels for meetings with EU representatives.

Like Özdemir, Ceyhun also believes the relationship between the two countries has reached a nadir. But unlike his former fellow party member, he believes Germany bears sole responsibility. He recalls how, after the German federal election in 2002, he was invited to meet with then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the Chancellery. Ceyhun had successfully mobilized German-Turkish voters on behalf of the SPD, and Schröder wanted to thank him for it. They spoke about Ceyhun's work, his plans for the future, and ultimately Schröder asked, "Tell me, Ozan, why are your compatriots actually voting for this Erdogan?"

Ceyhan says that's the point when he realized that, despite his German citizenship, he would always remain "the Turk." This disregard, he says, is something he also experiences in Germany's dealings with Turkey.

He argues that even though the Turks defended democracy against the coup plotters on July 15, 2016, no leading German politician came to Turkey to express his or her solidarity in the weeks that followed. Instead, he claims, Germany offered the plotters refuge, including members of the Islamist Gülen community. And he says that followers of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a terror organization, are allowed to speak freely in Germany, but not President Erdogan.

That's why he considers his president's tirades against Europe, or Turkey's denial of the rights to visit Incirlik and Konya to be legitimate responses to the Germans' hostility. He says the crisis in the relationship between the two countries may be regrettable, but not tragic -- because Turkey has other partners.

A Growing Economic Price

In the past few years, Erdogan has learned that his provocations generally lead to warnings from Germany, but no consequences. And so he has continued to intensify the confrontation. This time, though, he may have miscalculated, because the political crisis is now affecting the economy -- and that could threaten his power. Turkey's next national election is scheduled for 2019, and millions of Turks have supported the president not because of his nationalist, Islamist agenda, but because of his promise of prosperity.

Few things could damage the Turkish economy more than when foreign investors have to worry about their safety in Turkey. But precisely that is what is now happening. In mid-July, the news emerged that the Turkish intelligence agency had sent the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) a list with the names of businesses that supposedly had worked with terrorists, including large companies like Daimler and BASF. The government in Ankara tried to mollify the situation, and has now even officially withdrawn the list, a fact that Foreign Minister Gabriel sees as confirmation that the pressure from Berlin is having an impact. But that will hardly suffice for Turkey to calm investors.

Increasingly, the political split is having economic consequences for the two former partner countries, which were bound together by 37 billion euros in trade in 2015. Almost 7,000 German companies are registered in Turkey, and Germany is the country's most important trading partner.

Istanbul corporate consultant Ayse Slevogt says that Turkey now has a "grave image problem." Though she, like many others, initially supported the reforms of the Islamist-conservative AKP. She says that after 2003, Erdogan modernized the economy, did away with red tape and opened the market for private investors. The new wealth is on display in the city's Kadiköy neighborhood, where Slevogt gives the interview. High-rises stand side by side, and sports cars are parked in front of the boutiques.

Slevogt studied psychology in Hamburg, and now advises German companies interested in investing in Turkey. For a long time, companies were fighting for the opportunity to get into business with Turkish companies. Between 2003 and 2012, about 400 billion euros flowed into the country, 10 times more than in the 20 previous years. But in 2016, foreign investments declined by 40 percent.

Slevogt now regularly receives phone calls from Germans who are asking themselves if they should even travel to Turkey, let alone invest there. Last summer, she had to cancel a German-Turkish business summit.

Erdogan's biggest problem may actually be capital flight from Turkey. The economic boom in recent years has mostly been fueled by infrastructure projects. He has had highways built, as well as airports and hospitals. The money for it came from outside the country; when it stops flowing, the economy suffers. The unemployment rate has now risen to 13 percent, the highest it has been in seven years. The lira hasn't been this weak against the dollar since 1981.

Tourism, which is the biggest economic sector outside of the construction industry, has collapsed. As recently as 2015, about 6 million Germans still spent their vacations in the country. In 2016, that figure was about one-third less. That number is likely to decrease again this year. According to a recent poll commissioned by DER SPIEGEL, nine out of 10 Germans currently wouldn't consider the idea of taking a vacation in Turkey.

But tourism is more than just a branch of the economy. It is also about exchange, about getting to know people and, in the best case, creating an understanding of a foreign culture.

Tourism in Crisis

Architects Gabriele and Erdogan Altindis sit on the balcony of their vacation home in Ayvalik, a small city on the Mediterranean coast. The view reaches all the way to the Greek island of Lesbos. President Erdogan is far away and yet still omnipresent. The news is full of reports about the German-Turkish crisis. Erdogan Altindis shakes his head. "Each time we hoped the situation would relax a bit, the discussions started up again," he says.

Altindis was born in Turkey, but he came to Germany as a child, went to school in Munich and studied architecture at college. He returned to Istanbul during the 1990s, later followed by his wife Gabriele. In 2006, they founded their company, Manzara, and began renovating old buildings in the neighborhood of Galata and renting them to tourists. At that point, Europe was discovering Turkey anew, and Istanbul suddenly became its coolest city.

The Altindis organized city tours, gave grants to artists, expanded their business and, at times, rented out more than 50 apartments. Newspapers and TV stations even reported on the successful German-Turkish couple.

Things changed with the Gezi protests in 2013, which Erdogan crushed. Then came a wave of terrorist attacks in Ankara, then in Istanbul, then the failed military coup, mass arrests, now the conflict with Germany. The vacationers stayed away. They now write letters to Manzara along the lines of "Hang in there! We'll come back when the political situation changes." Currently, the Altindis run only eight apartments.

Gabriele Altindis asks herself how she can reconcile the changes in Turkey with her own understanding of democracy. But she is still tied to her adopted home country. The Altindis are now working to open a communal space in Ayvalik with a café, library and concert stage. They've filmed a movie they'd like to use to advertise the city on the Aegean. In Ayvalik, like everywhere else on the Turkish Mediterranean coast, a majority of voters came out against Erdogan in April's constitutional referendum.

Erdogan Altindis says he can understand that Germany has lost patience with Ankara. But a travel boycott would, first and foremost, hurt the opposition. "Europe can't abandon these people now," the Altindis believe.

But the Germans' image of Turkey is primarily shaped by Erdogan. The crisis in the relationship is also affecting the daily lives of the approximately 3 million Turkish-Germans, at a time when their relationship to mainstream German society had only recently become more relaxed.

Splits Among Family Members

Senol Akkaya, 57, literally helped build Germany. He and his construction company were involved in the building of the Chancellery and the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, a top address in the German capital city. At times, he has employed as many as 300 people. Now he feels like he has been cheated and denied the recognition he deserves.

Akkaya sits in a restaurant in Berlin's Schöneberg district. He has just spoken on the phone with a business partner who used to regularly fly to Antalya to play golf, but is now having second thoughts. The German Foreign Ministry's travel advisory, Akkaya believes, is scaring Germans away from Turkey.

He came to Berlin as a child with his parents, speaks perfect German, is integrated -- and voted to back the introduction of Erdogan's presidential system during the April referendum. Akkaya believes Erdogan has transformed Turkey into a strong, independent country. He says that under his leadership the economy has grown and that minorities have been granted more rights. When Akkaya traveled to his former homeland with German friends, he showed them with pride how the country had developed under Erdogan. Now he feels like he has to defend himself for supporting Erdogan.

The dispute over Turkish politics is even driving a wedge between Akkaya's own family. His daughter works as a German teacher in Istanbul, and she watches with concern as freedom of speech is curtailed, and the role of religion grows. She voted against Erdogan in the referendum. The Akkayas now only speak rarely about politics.

During the April referendum, 63 percent of the Turkish-Germans who voted supported Erdogan -- considerably more than in Turkey. Now they feel like they are being accused of supporting an anti-democratic leader. Some conservative politicians with the Christian Democrats have even used the vote results to once again question whether Germans should be allowed to hold more than one passport. But if Erdogan is considered to be a despot by the Germans, Turkish-Germans like Senol Akkaya see him as a man who restored their self-confidence.

In a 2016 study by the University of Münster, half of the Turkish-Germans polled said that they feel they don't get proper recognition by society. And Erdogan taps that dissatisfaction. In 2004, he opened the European Central Office of the Union of European Turkish Democrats, an AKP lobbying group, in Cologne. In 2010, he created the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Relative Communities (YTATB), a government agency focused on Turkish people living in other countries. This enables him to exert influence over politics in Germany -- and makes dealing with Erdogan that much tougher. The result is that Berlin's policies toward Turkey have become a balancing act for the German government. It finds itself having to put the brakes on Erdogan while at the same time having to seek to avoid overly alienating his supporters in Germany.

Green Party co-chair Özdemir believes the German government has only one option: It needs to cut off Erdogan's influence on Turkish-Germans on a fundamental level. He wants the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (Ditib), which operates many of the mosques in Germany, to be uncoupled from the Turkish government's Directorate of Religious Affairs in Ankara. Currently, Ditib's imams are supplied and funded by Ankara, but Özdemir says imams employed by the mosques should be trained in Germany. He would also like to see the government introduce a German-Turkish television channel inspired by Arte, the public Franco-German TV network, to counteract the propaganda on Turkish TV. "We need to finally come up with a strategy for Turkey," says Özdemir. "We can't keep simply clambering from one crisis to the next."

The dispute with Berlin has at least jolted Ankara. Members of the Turkish government, including Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, have made clear attempts at de-escalation in recent days. They have at the least made it clear that they would be open to allowing Bundestag lawmakers to visit the military air base in Konya within the context of a NATO delegation. This week, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg successfully secured approval for members of the Bundestag to visit Konya as part of a larger NATO delegation on Sept. 8.

But it is unlikely that Erdogan will change course. He has already become too much of an autocrat to reinvent himself one more time. That's why the German government desperately needs a long-term strategy for dealing with Turkey. Politicians of various parties are calling for a suspension of the EU's accession talks with Turkey, but that step would also eliminate all of Europe's influence over Turkey for the remainder of Erdogan's time in office.

Another less drastic step, like the one Sigmar Gabriel has suggested in his letter to the EU, would seem to be more appropriate: The EU could freeze the negotiations with Turkey about a broadening of the customs union. Erdogan has great interest in the easing of the exchange of goods between Turkey and Europe. The German government could make concessions from Ankara on human rights issues a precondition for talks about duty exemptions.

In parallel, Germany ought to support Turkey in its dispute over visa liberalization. The EU has lifted visa requirements for Serbians, Ukrainians and even for citizens from the United Arab Emirates. It also has an interest in allowing Turks to travel through the Continent to see that a free Europe is a counterpoint to an authoritarian Turkey. On top of this, it would signal to the Turks that although we may not agree with your government, we do welcome you.

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