Once again an EU country faces a critical election, and as usual Turkey, a candidate country for accession to the bloc, is being used as a tool in political campaigning. Germany, Europe’s most populous country, will hold a national election on Sept. 24 amid a major diplomatic confrontation between Berlin and Ankara.
The bilateral relationship has been going through one of its most difficult phases since early this year, when Berlin banned Turkish ministers from campaigning in Germany before Turkey’s April 16 constitutional referendum. The arrest of a Turkish-German journalist, and Ankara’s refusal to let German lawmakers visit their troops based in Incirlik, have further fueled the dispute.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, undoubtedly the most influential politician in the EU, vowed during a Sept. 3 TV debate to speak to other European leaders “to end the accession talks with Turkey.” Her center-left rival Martin Schulz also proposed halting membership talks and freezing Turkey’s pre-accession funds.
It looked more like a competition over who could bash Turkey harder, than a debate on domestic issues. Turkey may not be the best ever candidate to join the EU, but German politicians using accession as a tool for domestic gain is of no use to either Germany or the bloc.
The harsh German rhetoric received an equal response from the Turkish side. Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for the Turkish presidency, tweeted Monday that Merkel and Schulz were trying to divert attention from more serious problems in their country and in Europe, such as a surge in discrimination and racism. “It is not a coincidence that our President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the main topic of the debate,” Kalin wrote.
It is unclear to what extent Angela Merkel will benefit politically by criticizing Ankara, but such rhetoric hampers the centuries-old relationship and alliance between Turks and Germans.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said populist campaign politics should not undermine bilateral relations, and warned against encouraging xenophobia and Islamophobia. Undoubtedly, the rise of far-right tendencies in Germany and Europe is significant and worrisome.
Given the presence of a large ethnic Turkish community in Germany, bilateral ties are a domestic issue for both countries. The issues between them revolve around Merkel and Erdogan, but she has been careful not to directly clash with him in order to protect the refugee deal she signed with Ankara. But she and other politicians have continued to voice discontent with Turkey.
The Germans are key players in the EU, but Ankara is deeply disappointed by Berlin’s treatment, and has several times expressed a desire to give up the 50-year effort to join the bloc.
The ups and downs between Erdogan’s Turkey and Merkel’s Germany seem inevitable. But both countries should try to avoid escalation, and should use diplomacy to repair ties. It is unclear to what extent Merkel will benefit politically by criticizing Ankara, but such rhetoric hampers the centuries-old relationship and alliance between Turks and Germans.
Following German politicians’ remarks, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Turkey’s accession talks will continue, and it remains a partner in many areas. Her words are important and positive, and show that other European leaders are aware of what German politicians are trying to do.
Erdogan has expressed his belief that bilateral relations will normalize once the German elections are over. No doubt both countries will dial down the rhetoric when the elections are over, but this does not mean the disputes between them will be solved anytime soon. So the continuation of a broken marriage seems more likely than a bitter divorce.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz