Time To Stand Up to Erdogan? Germany Debates Tougher Stance Against Turkey

The recent arrest of German human rights activist Peter Steudtner marks a turning point in relations between Germany and Turkey. In an election year, the center-left Social Democrats want to see a tightening of sanctions, but Angela Merkel has declined. She wants to save the refugee deal the EU has made with Ankara.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan


Sigmar Gabriel had been looking forward to a few lovely days with his wife and daughters on Sylt, an island on Germany's North Sea coast. On World Emoji Day, the German foreign minister posted emojis of a beach, the sun and a pictogram of a family on Facebook.

By 6 a.m. the next morning, his idyllic vacation had been interrupted. Gabriel received the news that a Turkish court had ordered the arrest of Peter Steudtner, a German citizen, accused of supporting terrorism. The evidence: none. He now faces pretrial detention that could last for up to five years.

Following a conference call with his staff in Berlin, it was clear -- Steudtner's case was too big to be addressed through the usual diplomatic channels. On Thursday morning, Gabriel was flown in a government jet from Sylt back to the capital city, where he gave a statement. He said that no German citizen could now feel safe in Turkey. The arrest of Steudtner and others on July 5 stands for an "injustice that can strike any German citizen in Turkey," the foreign minister said. With arbitrary arrests, accusations of terrorism against German businesses and a new diatribe by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against "traitors" and their alleged European supporters, the past week marked a turning point in German-Turkish relations. Up to that point, the German government had hoped to simply endure the many provocations coming from Ankara without changing the fundamental direction of Germany's policies toward Turkey.

The events of recent months have indeed weighed heavily on German-Turkish relations. They include the arrest  of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel in February, the ban on members of the German parliament from visiting German soldiers stationed at basis in Incirlik and Konya on a mission that is mandated by the Bundestag, and crude and insulting remarks by Erdogan that Germany was using "Nazi practices" by not allowing  him and other Turkish officials to hold rallies in the country in the run-up to a constitutional referendum in Turkey. But leaders in Germany simply sought to deflect the attacks and focus on the most important aspects of the relationship: the joint battle against Islamic State, the handling of the refugee crisis and the economic ties between Germany and Turkey that are vital to both countries.

'We Need a Change in Policy'

But these hopes were dashed last week. Turkey is abandoning European values, Gabriel declared as he announced a "reorientation" of German foreign policy. "De-escalation is a good thing in principle," a statement from the Foreign Ministry read, but the situation has changed dramatically. "We need a change in policy in order to prevent making a laughing stock of ourselves, even if it comes at a price."

That price is indeed high. For Germany, Turkey isn't some random country at the backdoor to Europe. Close to 3 million people of Turkish origin reside in Germany, meaning that the country's policies toward Turkey also have a domestic aspect to them. Turkey is also a NATO member state  of particular strategic importance. If Turkey continues on its path away from the West, this would have grave consequences for Europe economically, militarily and politically.

The first effects will be felt by Germans who either travel to Turkey each year or live there. Close to 4 million people from Germany visited Turkey in 2016, more than from any other country. And around 70,000 Germans lived in the country at the gateway to Asia in 2015, where they are business owners, journalists or married to Turkish nationals. They will now have to be thinking about their own response to the heightened travel warning.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel as he prepared to depart on a government jet for Turkey in June. "We need a change in policy in order to prevent making a laughing stock of ourselves, even if it comes at a price," he said.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel as he prepared to depart on a government jet for Turkey in June. "We need a change in policy in order to prevent making a laughing stock of ourselves, even if it comes at a price," he said.

Foto: Gregor Fischer/ dpa

Officials in Berlin are also considering the suspension of German government loan guarantees for exports to or investments in Turkey. Germany is Turkey's most important trading partner. In 2016, the two countries had trade volume of 37 billion euros, with 15 billion euros in exports from Turkey to Germany and 22 billion euros worth of imports from Germany to Turkey. In terms of foreign investment in Turkey, Germany, with 12 billion euros a year, trails only behind the Netherlands.

But it's questionable whether any of these statistics will make much of an impression on Erdogan. That's why the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) is already discussing the possibility of further sanctions in the hope of creating more pressure for Chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party during the election campaign. Indeed, Germany's policies toward Turkey haven't exactly been the most convincing under Merkel. The SPD has sussed out weaknesses in Merkel's role in Turkey, while claiming a bit more credibility regarding the issue for themselves.

'Merkel's Strategy ... Has Simply Failed'

Merkel's challenger in this fall's national election, Martin Schulz, was the first last Wednesday to use clear vocabulary to demand that a correction be made in the course of German-Turkey policies. The SPD candidate said that Germans had been "made hostages of Turkish domestic policies." That's why, he said, "it is now time for the chancellor to end her silence" on the issue.

A short time later, Thomas Oppermann, the SPD's party whip in parliament, added, "Merkel's strategy of facing Erdogan with demonstrative composure has simply failed." He then called on Merkel to "make Erdogan understand unequivocally that things cannot continue as they are."

Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, the SPD has been skeptical of the chancellor's policies toward Turkey. The SPD's foreign policy point man in parliament, Niels Annen, for example, has already called several times for the chancellor to include visits with members of the opposition during her trips to Turkey. In contrast to Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD, her foreign minister of many years, Merkel has avoided making such visits in the past -- although she did make one exception during her last trip in February. "Merkel has failed to show her backing for the opposition," Annen lamented. "A few photos would have been easy for her to do."

As part of its political traditions, the SPD has long maintained regular contacts with the social democratic CHP party in Turkey as well as the Kurdish HDP opposition party. SPD members of parliament have also raised money for members of HDP who have been arrested by the government. In May, Can Dündar, the former editor-in-chief of the national daily Cumhuriyet, who was forced to flee Turkey, became the recipient of the SPD's Gustav Heinemann Prize for civil courage. Dündar also served as a guest of honor at the SPD's party convention in Dortmund at the end of June.

And on Wednesday, SPD boss Martin Schulz had a lengthy telephone conversation with CHP party head Kemal Kilicdaroglu in which he conveyed the Social Democrats' views on Erdogan and Turkey. He also invited Kilicdaroglu to visit him in Berlin in the coming days.

SPD leaders believe Turkey could prove to be a good campaign issue for the party as September's national election approaches. Gabriel and Schulz are positioning themselves to look like the ones pushing the issue of Turkey forward. Gabriel interrupted his own holiday on the very day that Merkel herself left for vacation. Before the press conference, the foreign minister also had a demonstrative meeting with SPD chancellor candidate Schulz and also made sure that journalists knew about it. "We're in an election campaign," Gabriel said openly.

Intensified Travel Warnings

The issuing of heightened travel warnings and the review of the Hermes loan guarantees had been agreed to in coordination with the chancellor, Gabriel said in the press room of the Foreign Ministry before laying out the SPD's further demands. For example, the party says it may withdraw support for the expansion of the customs union between the EU and Turkey. "I can't imagine there will be negotiations over the expansion of the customs union," Gabriel said.

For Merkel, the push is extremely delicate given that the offer to negotiate a "customs union plus" with Turkey was part of the refugee deal that the EU agreed to with Ankara at the chancellor's instigation. What presumably could be the next step also makes Merkel nervous -- namely if the SPD were also to call for a suspension of EU membership negotiations with Turkey. That would likely be the end of the refugee agreement.

"I don't believe that the negotiations over the customs union should be aborted," said Johann Wadepfuhl, the CDU's foreign policy point man in parliament. He also said he was skeptical as to whether the shift in policy heralded by Gabriel could actually sway Ankara to shift its positions.

But the situation for Merkel, who is also the head of her party, is growing increasingly uncomfortable, because the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) -- with which it shares power in a government coalition together with the SPD -- is also pushing to ratchet up sanctions. "It's very clear: We must end EU accession talks immediately," said Markus Söder, Bavaria's finance minister. "There now needs to be clarity and truth in the relationship to Turkey."

Under Erdogan, Turkey has set out on a path that is taking large steps away from Europe, and diplomacy and good arguments are no longer leading anywhere, the CSU politician said. "That's why we should take action when we can and cancel negotiations over a deepening of the customs union with Turkey," he said.

The European Commission also sees no reason to save Merkel's Turkey deal if it has to do so at all costs. European Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn of Austria argues that, for some time now, the EU has not been vulnerable to blackmail from Turkey on the refugee issue. "In 2015, we had a situation in which migrants made their way into Europe in largely uncontrolled ways. But the situation is now entirely different." Through the closure of the west Balkan route, patrols of the Aegean Sea and support for Syrian refugees in Turkey, he said the risk is low that tens of thousands would suddenly make their way from Turkey to Europe if Ankara were to open the borders.

A Reluctance to Act

For his part, Turkish President Erdogan has very precisely registered Merkel's reluctance to act. The Turkish president doesn't want to pursue dialogue. Instead, he seems to be following an archaic understanding of politics: To him, compromises and trade-offs count little. He thinks in categories of power and impotence and strength and weakness. He has determined that the German government is holding back out of uncertainty and that although he may get some warnings over his escapades, they won't be followed by any real consequences. So, he just continues to push the conflict forward -- with Erdogan in the role of the blackmailer and Germany so far accepting that.

Although Erdogan may outwardly appear to be omnipotent, he's actually driven by fear and a desire to take revenge against his opponents. The failed July 15, 2016, coup attempt  has only served to further strengthen that paranoia. In the time since, Erdogan has gone so far in the persecution of real and imagined enemies that he has inflicted tremendous damage on his country's reputation.

German human rights activist Peter Steudtner could face up to five years of pretrial detention despite the fact that there is zero evidence against him.

German human rights activist Peter Steudtner could face up to five years of pretrial detention despite the fact that there is zero evidence against him.

Foto: Privat/ dpa

It appears to have been mostly by coincidence that Peter Steudtner became Erdogan's hostage. In contrast to Yücel or Mesale Tolu, both Turkish-German journalists who have been arrested by the Turkish government, Steudtner has no family ties or business relations in Turkey. He mostly works in African countries and had only attended a human rights seminar in Istanbul as a coach. Now the Turkish justice system has accused him of providing support for an armed terrorist organization.

No one knows how long Steudtner and his colleagues will remain incarcerated. In Turkey, pretrial detention can last for up to five years. Erdogan himself already determined Steudtner's guilt at the G-20 summit earlier this month in Hamburg, at a point at which the German had only been detained in Turkey for a few days. The meeting of the human rights activists, Erdogan decreed, had been a "continuation of July 15."

Last Saturday in Istanbul, Erdogan announced to the world how he wants to deal with the alleged putschists. "We will tear the heads off these traitors," he said.

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