Head-On Tensions Escalate Between Berlin and Erdogan

Turkey's hardline approach to German journalist Deniz Yücel has created considerable pressure for the government in Berlin, with Erdogan's statements over the weekend further exacerbating the situation. Still, the Turkish leader isn't as strong as he appears to be.
A girl in Berlin holds up a sign of the German journalist arrested in Turkey.

A girl in Berlin holds up a sign of the German journalist arrested in Turkey.

Foto: Kay Nietfeld/ dpa

The discussion in the presidential palace in Ankara lasted longer than planned. Angela Merkel spent more than two hours in early February speaking to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, urging him to adhere to civil liberties and democracy and also calling upon him to respect the division of powers.

Finally, the chancellor addressed the case of Deniz Yücel, a correspondent with the conservative daily Die Welt who had fled the Turkish authorities and took refuge on the property of the summer residence of the German ambassador in Istanbul, where he holed up for the next five weeks.

But the chancellor's positive words about the journalist bore little fruit. When Yücel ultimately headed to police headquarters in Istanbul around two weeks later to turn himself in voluntarily, the agency head seemed well-informed. The police chief greeted the correspondent by saying the German chancellor had taken great interest in him.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting inside the presidential palace in Ankara on Feb. 2.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting inside the presidential palace in Ankara on Feb. 2.


The arrest of the German-Turkish journalist marks a new nadir in the already deeply unsettled relations between Berlin and Ankara. Even as the chancellor spoke of a "bitter" development and caravans of cars drove through Hamburg and Berlin bearing "Free Deniz" protest signs, those close to Erdogan defended what they claimed to be an independent decision made by the Turkish judiciary. Ultimately, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel requested a meeting with the Turkish ambassador at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin and spoke of one of the "biggest tests" yet seen in German-Turkish relations.

The German government finds itself in a tight spot. It doesn't want to lose Turkey as a Middle East ally, but it must also respond to the growing outrage among the German populace over a Turkish president who is in the process of turning his country into a dictatorship, one who has ordered organizations aligned with the government in Ankara to spy on people in Germany and who has now gone even further by cracking down on a German reporter who doesn't appear to have done anything other than to report critically on the situation in the country. Cem Özdemir, who heads Germany's Green Party, says Erdogan believes he has "Mrs. Merkel wrapped around his little finger because of the refugee pact."

Sliding into Dictatorship

With only a few weeks to go before Erdogan holds a constitutional referendum that would restructure the country into a de facto autocracy, the call for consequences is becoming louder in Germany. From conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) national executive member Jens Spahn to center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) foreign policy expert Niels Annan to conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) head Horst Seehofer, a cross party coalition is growing that seeks to prevent planned events in Germany, with its large population of Turkish citizens, by Erdogan and other top government officials to promote the constitutional reform.

The government, however, is concerned that if it bans the events, it might anger the Turkish population in Germany. Last week, officials sought to pass the buck, with officials in Berlin saying it was the job of the individual states to decide whether to ban events and not the federal government. But state officials in North Rhine-Westphalia claimed it was "the federal government's job."

On Thursday, one municipality acted on its own. In Gaggenau, located in the state of Baden-Württemberg, officials canceled a planned appearance by Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, claiming that the event hall would not be able to handle the number of people expected. At around the same time, officials in Cologne canceled a planned appearance by the Turkish economics minister, forcing him to hold his speech in a different city. It was, in short, mayors who began making the tough decisions that politicians at the state and federal level either couldn't -- or didn't want to -- make.

The Turkish government responded by officially summoning the German ambassador to the Foreign Ministry in Ankara, a diplomatic affront that further poisoned relations.

Intense Criticism of Erdogan

Then, a new low was reached on Sunday when Erdogan, speaking in Istanbul, said that German actions "do not differ from the earlier Nazi practices." The Turkish leader also described journalist Yücel as a "terrorist."

Merkel angrily dismissed the allegation on Monday. "One seriously cannot even comment on such misplaced comments," she said, adding that statements minimizing the suffering caused by the crimes of the National Socialists during the Holocaust are unjustifiable. Even as she emphasized that there is much connecting Germany and Turkey, she added that there are "profound differences of opinion" between the two countries on issues like "freedoms of opinion and the press" that "are now in clear view."

Following Erdogan's outburst, the city of Hamburg this week canceled an event planned for Tuesday night with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu, citing fire safety concerns. After defiantly stating, "No one can stop me," the foreign minister did speak in Hamburg at the residence of the Turkish consulate general.

But it's not just Berlin that finds itself in a difficult spot. Erdogan isn't in nearly as strong a position as it might seem. At the moment, Erdogan is having to control collateral damage caused by his repressive policies while at the same time, he is facing a difficult fight to ensure that his reform plans are not rejected by Turkish voters.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 10/2017 (March 4, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.

That fight was on full display a week ago Saturday at a campaign event held in a sports arena in Ankara. Mayors, members of parliament, government ministers and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim all appeared onstage in front of 40,000 guests to launch the "Yes on the Referendum on the Presidential System" campaign. A portrait of Erdogan had been hung from the ceiling with the words "Evet," Turkish for "yes."

Yet despite the meticulous planning, the arena didn't fill with the kind of euphoria generally seen at rallies in support of Erdogan's Justice and Development (AKP) party. The crowd monotonously waved flags and clapped obligingly during Yildirim's speech. Leading AKP heavyweights like former President Abdullah Gül chose not to attend the event.

A Country in Crisis

AKP is experiencing similar sentiment almost all across Turkey. The party is having a tough time convincing the people of the necessity of a constitutional reform that would place virtually all state responsibility under the control of the president. Erdogan, who until recently seemed all-powerful, suddenly has reason to fear he won't win the April 16 referendum.

The polls are fluctuating, with some showing the "no" camp ahead in February -- in some instances with a 10 percentage point lead. More unsettling for Erdogan is a poll taken by the institute Akam showing that more than one-third of AKP supporters plan to vote "no" in the referendum.

It has become almost impossible for the government to hide the crisis facing the country. Since the July 15, 2016, coup attempt, Erdogan has suspended close to 130,000 government employees from their positions and around 46,000 people have been arrested on suspicions of assisting or participating in the coup. The purge has left parts of the government apparatus paralyzed. Classes have been canceled at schools and universities because of a lack of teachers and professors. The number of casualties in the military deployment in Syria is also growing. The country is routinely shaken by terrorist attacks perpetrated by Kurds or Islamist terrorists. On new year's eve alone, a terrorist strike on the Istanbul nightclub Reina left 39 people dead.

The unrest in the country has long since begun having an impact on the economy. Though it flourished for many years under Erdogan, the Turkish economy shrank by 1.8 percent during the third quarter of 2016 relative to the same period the previous year. Tourism revenues in the country have plummeted by one-third and unemployment has risen to a seven-year high.

Even a majority of AKP voters feels that the situation in their country has deteriorated since the last parliamentary election in November 2015, according to one poll. Two-thirds of those surveyed said that Turkey is experiencing economic difficulty.

The president, in short, is under pressure. Which is why, says Turkish opposition politician Mithat Sancar, the Yücel case is a welcome gift. It enables Erdogan to distract attention from his own weaknesses and instead present himself the way he most likes to do: as the unchallenged leader who, if need be, can also pick a fight with the West.

A German Role in Shaping Turkey's Future

And there's one group of voters that is particularly receptive to Erdogan's blustering: Turks living in Germany. Around 3 million people with Turkish roots live here, with half of them possessing Turkish passports and the right to vote back home. After Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, Germany is Turkey's fourth largest electoral constituency.

For years, Turkish governments paid little attention to their compatriots living abroad. "We were foreign currency procurers," says Fatih Zingal, a member of the board of the Union of European-Turkish Democrats (UETD), an AKP lobby group in Germany. "We sent money back home and that was it."

That situation has changed dramatically under Erdogan. In 2010, the government created the Presidency for Turks Abroad (YTP), an agency with 300 employees who are responsible for maintaining contact with the approximately 4 million Turkish citizens living abroad. "Wherever our fellow citizens are, we are there too," the office promises.

Erdogan at the venue where he made the "Nazi practices" comparison on Sunday.

Erdogan at the venue where he made the "Nazi practices" comparison on Sunday.


Among Turks living abroad, Erdogan is arguably more popular than any Turkish leader who preceded him. During the parliamentary election in fall 2015, 60 percent of Turkish voters living in Germany voted for AKP, 10 percentage points higher than inside Turkey. Erdogan will be relying on those overseas voters to pass his referendum in April. Current forecasts indicate that the race will be tight, meaning the outcome could ultimately be decided by just a few tens of thousands of votes. "Turkey's future will be partly decided in Germany," says opposition politician Sancar.

Are Merkel's Hands Ties?

So far, the Turkish government hasn't made an official request in Berlin for permission for a visit by Erdogan. Inside the AKP, however, the date of March 18 has been circulating. And inside the German Foreign Ministry, officials assume that request is coming soon.

Last week, sources in both the Chancellery and the Foreign Ministry said it would be nearly impossible for them to reject such a visit. After all, they would also likely allow Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping to speak to their compatriots in Germany. Furthermore, the German government is eager to avoid accusations of attempting to interfere in the campaign. Particularly at a time when Turkey is trampling on press and speech freedoms, it is necessary to show even more magnanimity to those who think differently, a source in the German Foreign Ministry said.

That may sound noble, but it's only part of the truth. The German government is also reliant on Turkey in the battle against Islamic State and for finding a solution to the Syria conflict. An even greater concern, however, is that an irritated Erdogan could revoke his country's refugee deal with Europe . A new wave of migrants at the start of the German federal election campaign certainly wouldn't help Merkel's re-election bid.

That might in part explain Merkel's apparent indifference in recent months to the downfall of democracy witnessed in Turkey. Now, however, she is facing increasing calls to stand up to the Ankara despot.

But what might the government do if it shies away even from preventing Erdogan from making a public appearance in Germany? One option is economic aid. Late last month, Turkish Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek spoke to his German counterpart Wolfgang Schäuble during a visit to Germany about support for the embattled Turkish economy.

But senior officials from the Finance, Economic and Foreign Ministries in Berlin are all in agreement that no additional aid should be provided until after the Turkish referendum.

The German government also has some leverage in the negotiations over a deepening of the customs union. Berlin could demand concessions from Ankara on human rights in exchange for better access to the European market.

At the same time, officials in Berlin are welcoming steps by German prosecutors to intensify their actions against Erdogan's forces in Germany. In mid-February, investigators searched the apartments of four imams linked with Ditib, a Turkish-Islamist umbrella organization in the country, who are suspected of having collected information about supporters of Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen in their religious communities for Diyanet, the Turkish religious authority. Gülen has been blamed by Erdogan's government for the coup attempt. The investigators didn't find the men, however, because they had apparently already left to Turkey. The imams at Ditib's mosques in Germany are sent and paid for by Diyanet.

Fears Conflict Could Spread to Germany

The government in Berlin fears that the conflict in Turkey could at some point spread to Germany. The federal interior minister as well as his counterparts at the state level are determined to more closely monitor Erdogan's fifth column and to not provide the Turkish organizations with as much leeway as they have in the past. At the same time, Berlin is seeking to develop a new strategy -- one that would make clear that it will not allow itself to be blackmailed by Ankara but at the same time does not unnecessarily escalate the situation with a difficult partner.

The highrise offices where the German daily newspaper Die Welt is based are running a Free Deniz sign on their digital billboard.

The highrise offices where the German daily newspaper Die Welt is based are running a Free Deniz sign on their digital billboard.

Foto: Kay Nietfeld/ dpa

What's also clear is that the sharper the tone gets between the two governments, the smaller the chances are of accomplishing anything in the Yücel case. Because officials in Ankara consider the German-Turkish journalist to be a Turkish citizen, the German Embassy is unable to provide him with consular assistance. The Foreign Ministry in Berlin has been warning dual citizens of that risk on its travel advisory website since last summer. Yücel was only safe for as long as he was hiding in the summer home of the German ambassador in northern Istanbul. Under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, representatives of the host nation are forbidden from entering, searching or carrying out an arrest on embassy property without the permission of the head of the mission.

The website of the Germany Embassy states that the summer residence is used to facilitate "German-Turkish dialogue," but the fact that the German ambassador provided Yücel with temporary asylum is unlikely to have promoted dialogue between the two countries.

Arresting Yücel didn't either.