German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a career-long skeptic of Turkish membership in the European Union, will fly to Ankara on Monday to declare goodwill between the two nations and declare that a "privileged partnership" between Europe and Turkey would still be a nice idea.
But just days before her departure, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done his part to ensure that the visit may be a tense one. In an interview with the influential German weekly paper Die Zeit, Erdogan proposed that Germany establish Turkish-language high schools for its Turkish minority.
"In Turkey, we have German high schools, why shouldn't there be Turkish high schools in Germany?" Erdogan told the paper. "On this issue, Germany hasn't seen the signs of the times."
The comments recall a speech Erdogan gave in Cologne in which he also called for Turkish-language education for those in Germany of Turkish descent. "It is your natural right to teach your children their mother tongue," he told German Turks then.
Not surprisingly, the reaction from German politicians to Erdogan's comments, published on Wednesday, was swift and critical. Wolfgang Bosbach, a parliamentarian from Merkel's Christian Democrats said "I don't believe integration would be furthered were we to establish Turkish high schools in which lessons were conducted in the Turkish language." Politicians from the center-left Social Democrats were likewise skeptical as were parliamentarians from Merkel's coalition partners, the business-friendly Free Democrats.
Erdogan had only recently raised eyebrows in Germany by inviting parliamentarians of Turkish-descent in Germany and other European countries to Istanbul for what was "purely a lobbying event," according to Özcan Mutlu, a Berlin state legislator from the Green Party, who attended. Leaders in Ankara wanted powerful members of the Turkish diaspora to work as representatives for Turkish interests abroad, he said. Mutlu himself recoiled from the idea. "We are not an extended arm of the Turkish government," he said.
The Turkish leader's comments are unlikely to sway Merkel from her skepticism of a full Turkish membership in the EU. In a Wednesday interview, she told the Germany-based Turkish newspaper Milliyet that "there are intertwined relations between Turkey and the EU. There are 35 chapters in the (EU accession) talks. I am confident that 27-28 of them can be taken up (without accession) and this will really mean a privileged partnership."
German commentators take a look at Erdogan's comments on Thursday as well as the prospects of Turkish membership in the European Union.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"As he did two years ago, Erdogan recommends building Turkish gymnasiums (university-prep high schools) in Germany. The reactions then were unequivocal: We don't need them. There were no dissenting opinions. Of course, if Nicolas Sarkozy had called for more French schools in Germany it would have been welcomed as a plea to cement French-German goodwill. But there's a problem when it comes to learning Turkish. It is not highly regarded here -- even after 50 years of Turkish immigration."
"Germany is relinquishing a big opportunity. International concerns desperately want qualified workers who can speak several languages.... It is precisely for this reason that Istanbul is establishing a German-Turkish university. Its students are expected to know German and Turkish -- far better, in fact, than immigrant children tend to learn both languages at home."
The conservative daily Die Welt argues:
"Erdogan has (again) expressed how little he cares about integration of Turkish immigrants. He sees them as a sort of national reserve, to be called up at will to represent the interests of Turkey. This appears more important to him than opening career opportunities for Turks in Europe."
"It has taken Germany many years to accept that one-time guest workers will not return to their homelands but have become -- with their children and grandchildren -- members of German society. It has also taken Germans a long time to accept that the Turks' integration problems are, in fact, problems for everyone. It's therefore fatal for Erdogan to nudge the Turkish diaspora back into a linguistic ghetto. Maria Böhmer, Germany's (conservative Christian Democrat) immigration appointee, has tried to free Turkish immigrants from this ghetto with her campaign, 'No future without a common language!' It's about time for Turkey to snap out of its own self-delusion."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"As a gift for her hosts on Monday, Merkel will bring an old shoe in her bag: the 'privileged parnership' idea, a sort of second-class EU citizenship which the Turks are meant to accept instead of full membership. The Turks, though, seem unwilling to be treated as poor relations from the east -- and they're right."
"The question isn't whether Turkey is ready for the EU. The EU is not ready for Turkey. Compared to other candidates, the country looks quite prepared in the near future to meet conditions for membership. At the same time it seems that the EU's recent swift growth has come close to overwhelming the union. The general hope that the Lisbon treaty would make the new, 27-member EU more efficient has not been fulfilled."
"The Turks are just now discovering their possibilities, their international weight. The percentage of people in Turkey who hope for EU membership and believe it's important has, simultaneously, weakened. It's an intricate situation for the Europeans. They can't meet their membership promises, but they also can't tolerate losing Turkey to the Middle East. The EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU."