“Absurd, disgraceful and outlandish.” That was the response of German Justice Minister Heiko Maas on March 6 to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s description of the banning of planned referendum rallies in Germany as reminiscent of “Nazi practices”.
Ankara’s already strained relations with Berlin have indeed hit a new low in the past two weeks. The plans of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to target 1.5m Turkish citizens living in Germany, who are eligible to vote in the April 16 referendum on introducing a presidential system with sweeping powers, have been rudely interrupted by several German municipalities. Citing security concerns, the local governments cancelled rallies scheduled to feature speeches by visiting Turkish ministers, thus setting in train a ferocious war of words between NATO allies Turkey and Germany.
But it was Erdogan who seriously raised the stakes by resorting to talking about "Nazi practices". His spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, meanwhile, on March 9 told a news conference that some European countries were working for the rejection of the constitutional changes tabled in the referendum, while also voicing concern about what he described as rising Islamophobia and racism in Europe.
As is her wont, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who faces her own vital poll this year in a bid for re-election, stopped short of entering the fray in anything like a fiery fashion and instead called for calm. Nevertheless, in – for her – relatively blunt comments to the Bundestag lower house of parliament on March 8, Merkel described the Nazi references as "so misplaced that you can't seriously comment on them". Merkel is only too aware how an escalating row might place in jeopardy the EU-Turkey deal on restricting flows of migrants, which she worked so hard to broker.
Resonating across Europe
But the spat between Ankara and Berlin has resonated across Europe.
President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker condemned Erdogan’s remarks. “I'm surprised by the statements that I hear from Turkey. When the Turkish president and his foreign minister say that Germany today is worse than Nazi Germany, I cannot accept that,” Juncker said.
Austria, meanwhile, called for a European Union-wide ban on Turkish referendum rallies, while the news from Zurich was that several Turkish citizens with diplomatic passports, wary of returning home to Erdogan’s regime, were seeking political asylum in Switzerland. Far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has begun to struggle a little in the opinion polls prior to the upcoming Dutch general election, was also in the headlines, organising his “own rally” in front of the Turkish embassy, at which he held a banner reading: “Stay away. This is our country”.
Some de-escalation of the tensions generated by the rally ban was achieved, however, after the Turkish and German foreign ministers met on March 8. “Whatever differences and arguments we have, there is no alternative to talks because [only] then is there a possibility of returning, step by step, to normalised and friendly relations between Germany and Turkey,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told reporters in Berlin after meeting Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu.
The latest acrimony reflects broader problems that have been simmering for some while.
Turkish-German relations soured after the failed coup attempt in Turkey last summer. Berlin, which has long criticised Turkey for its human rights record, has several times pointedly raised concern over the ongoing purges and detentions of tens of thousands of people that have occurred in the wake of the botched putsch.
The end of February saw relations take another turn for the worse when Amnesty International responded to a Turkish court’s decision to remand Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yucel in custody by stating that the free media in Turkey “is in its death throes”. Merkel condemned the detention as harsh, but restrained from making a forceful response. Erdogan nevertheless waded into the row, saying Yucel “was a German agent and a member of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)”.
Ankara often accuses Germany of harbouring members of the PKK, the leftist armed-group DHKP-C, and supporters of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who the Turkish government says planned the failed coup.
And, if the German intelligence agencies are correct, there are plenty of Turkish agents on the ground in Germany spying on Gulenists for the Turkish government.
“There has been a significant increase in intelligence efforts by Turkey in Germany,” the German BfV domestic intelligence agency said on March 8, news agencies reported.
Last month, German police raided the apartments of four Turkish imams suspected of conducting espionage on behalf of Ankara against Gulenists.
Clearly, Germany and Turkey have a long and lengthening list of disagreements. It’s difficult to see how most of them could be overcome any time soon with election fever a key factor this year in both countries. But despite all the rows, Ankara and Berlin will strive to protect their ties, simply because they need each other.
Strong political and economic ties have been forged over the past five decades. Irreparably damaging these ties is surely a risk neither side will take.
What’s more nearly three million people of Turkish descent live in Germany, contributing to the country’s economy and social fabric.
Additionally, around 100,000 Turkish-German businesses operate in Germany, achieving a combined annual turnover of €50bn and employing almost 500,000 people.
Over in Turkey, you find at least 6,000 German companies in operation. German investments in Turkey across 2002-2015 have amounted to nearly $8.5bn.
The bilateral trade volume between the two countries was more than $35bn last year with Turkey’s exports to Germany accounting for $14bn of that and Turkey’s imports from Germany being worth $21.5bn.
Turkey remains, moreover, a key partner of the West in the fight against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. And not only Germany but also Europe in its entirety need active cooperation from the Turks in helping to stem the flows of migrants and refugees from the destabilised Middle East.
So as things stand now, the West cannot risk alienating Turkey, a country which has the second largest army in NATO and, to that organisation’s consternation, may even negotiate an anti-aircraft missile system deal with Moscow.
Notably, German Justice Minister Mass remarked that moves such as banning Erdogan from visiting Germany or breaking off diplomatic ties would push Ankara “straight into the arms of Vladimir Putin, which no-one wants”.
It is not yet clear whether Erdogan will travel to Germany to attend referendum rallies.
“I will go [to Germany] tomorrow if I want to. If they won't let me enter or don't let me talk, I will stir up the whole world”, a defiant Erdogan said on March 6.
It’s a truism to say that Merkel acknowledges Turkey’s importance to Germany, but with the German vote in mind she has no choice but to at least gently hit out at Ankara for using Nazi references.
“From our point of view, it's worth making every endeavour to advocate for German-Turkish relations but on the basis of our values and our expectations and with clarity… These comparisons of Germany with Nazism must stop. They are unworthy of the close ties between Germany and Turkey and of our peoples,” Merkel added on March 9, speaking in the Bundestag.
Huge amount at stake
The stakes are huge for Erdogan and his ruling AKP in the upcoming referendum.
The AKP is presently mostly targeting nationalist voters. Standing up against the West, no doubt, will help Erdogan consolidate his supporter base. Conspiracy theories about how the EU is trying to undermine Turkey go down well with swathes of the electorate.
The government says the German ban is part of a wider Islamophobia in Europe. It is rhetoric that resonates well with the AKP’s conservative grassroots.
Turkey, though, learned a hard lesson about the virtues of diplomacy when in late 2015 it found itself at loggerheads with Russia. Putin blanked Erdogan’s calls after a Turkish fighter shot down a Russian SU-24 fighter-bomber near the Syrian border. Moscow’s tough response involved the imposition of a raft of sanctions that cost Turkey billions of dollars in lost tourism and export revenues. It took months of diplomatic efforts to find a way to accommodate the repairing of the damaged bilateral relations.
It remains to be seen whether the confrontational language the Turkish government is now using against Germany is just for domestic consumption and whether or not the confrontational stance will be dropped after the referendum.