Germany and Turkey a microcosm of Western challenges

Dr Oliver Hartwich
14 November, 2023

Turkish Presidential visits to Germany to Germany are seldom easy affairs. This has been especially so during the tenure of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Germany, with the largest Turkish population outside Turkey, has become centre stage for Erdoğan’s assertive foreign policy. Regardless of the duration of their stay in Germany, or indeed whether Germany is their birthplace, Erdoğan perceives the Turkish diaspora in Germany as part of his extended national constituency. And he treats it as such.

Erdoğan’s stance has historically fuelled tensions, notably when campaigning in Germany involved large-scale rallies and radical rhetoric. The list of irritants in German-Turkish relations during the Erdoğan period is long.

As Erdoğan visits Germany this week for the first time in three years, the atmosphere is palpably tenser than in previous encounters. The crux of the heightened tension is the ongoing war in Gaza, with Germany and Turkey adopting starkly opposing stances.

Germany’s solidarity with Israel is deeply rooted in its historical context and political ethos, as expressed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and recently confirmed in a speech by Deputy Chancellor Robert Habeck.

In taking an opposing view, Erdoğan positions himself as a global Muslim leader, recently lauding Hamas as “freedom fighters” and denouncing Israel with vehement rhetoric.

The strong disagreement on the Gaza war highlights a profound ideological chasm between the two nations.

Yet, despite these deep-seated differences, Erdoğan’s visit will proceed, albeit underscored by stringent security measures, widespread protests, and intense media scrutiny.

This visit, therefore, is far from a diplomatic formality. It plays into the bigger picture of Germany’s complex and complicated relationship with Turkey and a shifting balance of power between Europe and the rest of the world.

Germany must engage with Turkey, no matter how difficult that is, not least because Turkey is a member of NATO. Turkey joined NATO when it was a Western-oriented, secular nation – a far cry from its current political landscape.

Even amid drastic governance changes, NATO cannot just eject members. Given Turkey’s strategic importance in the Middle East, it would not want to do so, even if it could.

Turkey’s relations with pivotal players like Ukraine, Russia and Iran render it a crucial geopolitical interlocutor. No other NATO member could overlook that – even though Turkey keeps making life hard for NATO, for example, through its ongoing provocations of Greece or its hesitance in admitting new Scandinavian members to the alliance.

But there is a specific German reason to keep a conversation going with Erdoğan, no matter how difficult it is. Erdoğan has sway over the Turkish community in Germany, notably through DİTİB, an umbrella mosque organisation overseeing more than 900 affiliated Turkish-Sunni mosque associations across Germany.

DİTİB, supported by the Turkish state, serves as Erdoğan’s ideological conduit, propagating his nationalist and radical agenda among German Turks. This influence raises concerns about integration, cultural autonomy, and foreign-government influence within Germany.

The German government’s efforts to counter this sway underscore the broader European challenge of managing external cultural and political influences, particularly from non-democratic regimes.

Erdoğan’s visit also comes against a backdrop of Turkey’s democratic backsliding. Under Erdoğan, Turkey has seen a crackdown on civil liberties, press freedom and the judiciary, with thousands jailed.

Germany has been highly critical of this authoritarian drift. Over the years, several German citizens (including prominent journalist Denis Yücel) have been detained in Turkey for political reasons, causing diplomatic crises.

Another pivotal element in the German-Turkish relationship is Erdoğan’s role in managing refugee flows. His control over the migration routes to Europe, especially in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis, gives him substantial leverage over European nations, particularly Germany.

During the 2015 European refugee crisis, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel learnt the hard way that Erdoğan had the power to switch refugee waves to Europe off and on. This led to the EU-Turkey deal to curb migration against payments to Ankara.

Erdoğan’s ability to influence these migration flows underscores the precarious nature of Europe’s external dependency for its internal security and social stability.

And so, Germany’s engagement with Erdoğan’s Turkey is a classic case of realpolitik. Despite the ideological gulf, Berlin recognises the necessity of maintaining a working relationship with Ankara. Not because Germany wants to. Not because anyone in German politics harbours any great sympathies for Erdoğan. But simply because Germany must

At best, one could call this pragmatism. But one thing it is certainly not is a values-based foreign policy.

In this sense, Erdoğan’s visit comes at a time when Europe’s diminishing influence is on full display. Europe hardly plays a role in the Middle East anymore. It does not have the military power (or the political unity) to make a decisive difference.

Even Turkey, which is in a parlous state after Erdoğan’s mismanagement of its economy, now seems to have more influence on the world stage than the EU. Europe once prided itself on exporting democratic values. It seems to be in a defensive stance, navigating a world where these values are no longer universally shared or respected.

Erdoğan’s visit forces Germany into an uncomfortable reckoning with the realities of the emerging multipolar order. On one side are the liberal democratic values that Germany still claims to champion. On the other are the realpolitik imperatives of engaging with authoritarian powers like Turkey, however unsavoury their leaders may be.

Some in Germany will decry such compromises as a betrayal of principles – and, in a way, they are. But ideals unchecked by realism are a luxury that a weaker Germany and Europe can no longer afford.

Germany’s relationship with Turkey is complicated. And it is merely a microcosm of far greater challenges facing the West now and over the coming decades.

To read the article on the Newsroom website, click here.

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