The Real Reasons behind the Current Turkish-German Row

By Gönül Tol | Director of Turkey Program - The Middle East Institute | Aug 28, 2017
The Real Reasons behind the Current Turkish-German Row

Relations between Turkey and Germany have become increasingly fraught over the past few months. They hit a new low following the August 19 arrest of Turkish-born German writer Dogan Akhanli in Spain. Akhanli, a frequent critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was held by Spanish authorities in connection with criminal proceedings in Turkey. Germany’s foreign minister has urged Spanish officials not to extradite the writer.

German politicians are also furious that Erdogan described Germany’s main political parties as “enemies of Turkey,” and urged Turks living there to boycott them in the elections. The tension has reached such heights that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is reportedly considering taking steps to suspend negotiations to expand the scope of the E.U.-Turkey customs union, and put joint arms projects on hold.

Relations began to sharply sour after authorities banned Turkish politicians from holding campaign rallies in Germany ahead of a constitutional referendum in Turkey. Erdogan then compared the authorities in Berlin with the Nazis, and Ankara canceled a German delegation's visit to the Incirlik airbase, where German military personnel and jets were stationed.

The war of words obscures the main reason for the escalating tension. Germany is home to three million Turkish immigrants, many of whom are still eligible to vote in Turkish elections. In the last elections, the majority of them voted Erdogan’s A.K. Party, and backed his call for sweeping new presidential powers in a referendum last year. By dialing up his anti-German rhetoric, Erdogan hopes to garner more votes from Germany’s Turkish immigrants, many of whom feel marginalized in a country that they have been living in for decades. He also wants to score points at home by galvanizing the nationalists.

But German politicians fear that his interference in the Turkish immigrant community exacerbates an already difficult situation. Germany is struggling to integrate Turkish immigrants into German society. Many of them still identify themselves with Turkey, and live in parallel societies where they watch Turkish television, speak Turkish, and have little interaction with the broader German society. Erdogan’s call on Turkish expats not to allow “forced integration” unsettle German politicians who think Erdogan’s rhetoric undermines their efforts.

Erdogan also interferes in the religious lives of Turkish immigrants. Through Turkey’s directorate for religious affairs (Diyanet), Erdogan has been able to expand his influence among the Turkish diaspora across Europe. Diyanet was established in 1924 to promote a secularized form of Islam. In the 1980s, Diyanet opened branches in Europe in order to prevent “radicalization of Turkish immigrants” by promoting the secular approach of the Turkish state. Up until 2010, it was a semi-autonomous institution. It is now firmly under the control of government and it has become a political tool that serves Erdogan, and his party’s interests not only at home but also abroad.

Diyanet pays the salaries of Turkish imams who are sent from Turkey and serve as Turkish civil servants at Diyanet mosques across Europe. It keeps a tight leash on the message delivered by these imams. Friday sermons delivered weekly are the same sermons delivered in Turkey, and dictated by Diyanet’s headquarters in Ankara. Diyanet’s recent activities in Germany are deeply unsettling to German officials. In the aftermath of the coup, for instance, Diyanet ousted reform-minded imams who tried to promote a liberal form of Islam, and preachers loyal to Erdogan have been caught red-handed by German intelligence of “enemies of the regime” to Turkish authorities.

In a co-authored article for Der Spiegel, German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, and justice minister, Heiko Maas, voiced the concern felt by many across the political spectrum in Germany. They argue that the mosques that are supported by Turkish state have become a political tool for Erdogan, and are promoting his polarizing, divisive rhetoric among Turkish immigrants. The article cautions against the negative role these Turkey-funded organizations and Erdogan’s interference in the religious lives of Turkish immigrants play on their integration.

While Erdogan chases votes from his nationalist base at home and among the Turkish expat community, the issue is part of a much-deeper and long-running problem for German lawmakers: how to integrate its three million immigrants of Turkish origin. But if he doesn’t dial down his rhetoric, Erdogan will be on the losing end. He relies on Germany, his country’s largest trading partner, for tourism and as a market for its exports. There are 7,000 German companies—from giants such as Deutsche Bank, Siemens, and Volkswagen to tiny importers of textiles and food—doing business in Turkey.

After the row, Germany's foreign minister cautioned Germans against traveling to Turkey and reviewed state guarantees of corporate investments made in Turkey. Particularly concerning for Ankara is Merkel’s call to suspend negotiations to expand the scope of the E.U.-Turkey customs union. Turkey and the European Union signed a Customs Union agreement in 1995 that has become the backbone of E.U.-Turkey economic integration. The value of bilateral trade in goods increased more than fourfold since then. Today it to $167 billion, representing 41 percent of Turkey’s global trade and over 70 percent of Foreign Direct Investment. Parties have been talking about upgrading the customs union since 2014 to include trade in services, agricultural products and public procurement. Enhancement of the customs union to new areas is particularly important for Turkey’s ailing economy.

Tension with Germany will certainly impact Turkey’s relations with the European Union, and raises concerns over Turkey’s reliability as a credible NATO partner. After Turkey declined to allow German lawmakers to visit troops stationed at Incirlik airbase, Germany decided to move its troops to Jordan. This raised eyebrows among NATO circles and prompted calls to put in place back-up plans.

Erdogan expects ties to improve after the German elections, but many think that there is consensus in Germany across the political spectrum that Berlin should not put up with Erdogan’s fiery rhetoric, authoritarian practices at home, and meddling in German politics. In the past, Merkel put up with Erdogan’s antagonism, fearing a breakdown in the Turkish-German deal to stem the flow of refugees into Europe.

But European capitals might be becoming less concerned about the flow of refugees from the war in Syria, as suggested by some E.U. officials, as they see the conflict more contained and ISIS in retreat. If that is the case, Erdogan loses one of the few leverages he has had over Germany. And it means further trouble for Erdogan if Merkel is serious about suspending talks on upgrading the customs union ahead of presidential elections in 2019. But the real losers in this fight might be Germany’s three million Turkish immigrants who have never felt that they were accepted by German society. Erdogan’s polarizing tactics and meddling not only drive a wedge within the Turkish immigrants, but also exacerbate the long-running tension between the immigrants and the host society. 

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