Towards a modern policy on Turkey

Kebabs from Berlin were served in the garden of the German embassy's summer residence by the German president and Berlin restauranteur Keles
"Doner kebab diplomacy": in the garden of the German embassy's summer residence, Steinmeier shaved meat from a kebab skewer specially flown in from Berlin. The image shows President Steinmeier and Berlin restaurateur Arif Keles (image: Bernd von Jutrczenka/picture alliance/dpa)

Political and diplomatic relations between Germany and Turkey are marked by dissent, but the numerous flashpoints in the Middle East are now bringing the two countries closer together. The German President's deft balancing act on his trip to Turkey points the way toward a pragmatic policy on Turkey

Commentary by Yasar Aydin

Seven years into his term of office, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has finally paid a visit to Turkey – far too late, in the eyes of many Turks. In contrast, those in Germany who are sceptical of Turkey contend that the visit gave an unnecessary boost to President Erdogan.

The three-day state visit stands in the tradition of diplomatic visits between Germany and Turkey. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz travelled to Turkey for an inaugural visit in March 2022, and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock went there in July 2022.

The subsequent visit to Ankara by Robert Habeck, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, at the end of October 2023, the first by a German economic minister since Peter Altmaier's working visit in 2018, did not have the desired positive signal effect. No agreement could be reached on further modes of cooperation.

German President Steinmeier began his trip to Turkey at the historic Sirkeci railway station in Istanbul, from whence guest workers set off for Germany 63 years ago
President Steinmeier began his trip to Turkey at the historic Sirkeci railway station in Istanbul, from whence the 'guest workers' departed for Germany 63 years ago (image: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance)

Between charm offensive and criticism

Most recently, the extraordinarily short working visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Germany in November 2023 showed just how great the political tensions between Berlin and Ankara really are.

Steinmeier's state visit was less frosty, and the feared clash did not occur – not least thanks to the German president's skilful balancing act between charm offensive and criticism. His "kebab diplomacy" will linger in the collective memory for a long time to come – not so much as a creative tour de force, but above all because of the attention it attracted. 

It was clever public diplomacy to relocate the first stop on the trip to Sirkeci Station. It was here that hundreds of thousands of young women and men boarded the train to Germany after the recruitment agreement with Turkey was signed in 1961. 

With his appearance there, the German President wished to honour the contributions of Turkish migrants to the German economic miracle and to emphasise that they were now a part of Germany. He therefore included politicians, artists and cultural workers of Turkish origin in his delegation. 

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In Istanbul, Steinmeier also met with Lord Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, who was able to defend his office in the recent local elections, as well as representatives of the Turkish opposition and civil society. 

He then proceeded to meet with people who had been injured during the Gezi Park protests in 2013, to speak with the Nobel laureate in literature Orhan Pamuk, who has already been tried several times for his views, and with Ozgur Ozel, the new leader of the opposition party CHP, which rose to the status of strongest political force in the local elections in March. 

The economy – a force for cohesion

Steinmeier's cultural diplomacy was aimed at sending a message to German majority society, among which cooperation with Turkey is more unpopular than ever before. This represents a further challenge for bilateral relations, as does the fact that a significant proportion of the Turkish population is dissatisfied with what is perceived as Germany's unconditional support for Israel.

Young protesters gave voice to this disapproval in derisive chants outside Sirkeci Station. And there is also widespread discontent with the EU's refugee policy, for which Germany is likewise held responsible. 

A significant share of the Turkish population rejects the refugee agreement between the EU and Turkey, believing that it degrades Turkey to act as a catch basin for floods of refugees. Steinmeier's one-day visit to Gaziantep and his praise for Turkey's achievements in integrating Syrian refugees will do little to change this. 

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (right) and Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul, at Sirkeci railway station
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (r.) and Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul, at Sirkeci railway station (image: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance)

Germany's Turkish diaspora: a strong link

The large and vibrant Turkish diaspora in Germany, which numbers around three million people, is a key factor in society and builds a strong bridge between Germany and Turkey through family ties and other alliances. It is not only these transnational links, however, but also Turkey's economic and geopolitical importance and its military strength that make it so valuable to NATO that Germany has no choice but to make the country a diplomatic focus. 

Germany needs Turkey – for example as a partner in controlling migration movements and as a mediator vis-à-vis Russia in the Ukraine war. As a regional power, Turkey is helping to contain Russia's aspirations for influence in the Black Sea region, the eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans and the South Caucasus.

Turkey at the same time functions as a counterweight to Iran by supporting Azerbaijan, maintaining good relations with Georgia, cautiously working toward a rapprochement with Armenia, and deepening its economic and political relations with Iraq. In short: Berlin needs Ankara as a cooperation partner in tackling a number of global and regional challenges. 

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (l.) and Turkish head-of-state Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara
Finally, a smile: German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (l.) with Turkish head-of-state Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara (image: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance)

Economically as well, Turkey is an attractive partner for Germany, even though its economy is facing colossal challenges such as combatting inflation, which currently averages 67 percent per annum, stabilising the exchange rate and attracting foreign direct investment as capital inflows. Due to diverse economic interdependencies, a growth crisis in Turkey would also affect Germany.

And the German economy is not exactly running smoothly either: Gross domestic product and exports are stagnating, and the decarbonisation of production is jeopardising the international competitiveness of German industry. But even more than that: Energy security and the competition with China in the international market for machinery, capital goods, electric cars and high-speed trains require concerted action to be taken.

The volume of German-Turkish trade has been increasing for years. It reached a record level of 51.6 billion euros in 2022. Turkish exports to Germany came to 24.6 billion euros, up by one quarter from the previous year. With an 8.3 per cent share in Turkey's total exports, Germany is the country's largest export partner and its third largest import partner after Russia and China. 

Key economic factor

High-tech products, motor vehicles, machinery and chemical products account for a sizeable proportion of goods imported into Turkey from Germany. Turkish exports to Germany include textiles, leather goods, motor vehicles and various automotive components, and increasingly also food and machinery. 

Turkey attracts billions in direct investment from Germany. The investment volume since 1980 is equivalent to around 16 billion US dollars. Currently, over 8,100 companies with German participation, in other words Turkish companies with German capital, are active in Turkey. 

These enterprises employ more than 100,000 people in Turkey. A considerable proportion of the capital consists of long-term new investments that will create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

This all goes to show that Turkey is an important supplier of finished industrial products as well as input products for Germany – numerous Turkish companies and production facilities are an integral part of German value and supply chains – as well as an important sales market and lucrative investment area. 

Finance Minister Christian Lindner was part of the Steinmeier delegation, and Turkish Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek will be coming to Berlin next month – further proof of the importance of and interest in economic cooperation. 

Diplomatic tensions

The fact that political and diplomatic relations between Germany and Turkey have not been going smoothly for years despite these far-reaching economic interdependencies and multiple forms of cooperation can be attributed to diverse differences of opinion, for example on the Aegean and Cyprus issues, in dealings with Russia and in the Gaza conflict.  

In the dispute between Greece and Turkey over territorial waters and Greece's arming of the Aegean islands, Berlin shows more understanding for Athens; Berlin opposes the two-state solution favoured by Ankara for Cyprus; and in the Gaza conflict Berlin supports Israel, while Ankara takes the side of Hamas. Berlin is furthermore dissatisfied that Ankara is not supporting the sanctions against Russia

Additional stumbling blocks in bilateral relations are Erdogan's authoritarian and undemocratic politics and often erratic negotiating methods – Berlin policymakers consider him to be among the most difficult of all negotiating partners. His restriction of political freedoms, disempowerment of parliament, and domination of the media and the judiciary, resulting in the imprisonment of many of his critics, have met with criticism in Germany and fuelled diplomatic tensions. 

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Nevertheless, no matter how much Germany dislikes the authoritarian course adopted by the Turkish government, it still relies on a functioning relationship with Turkey. The abrupt ups and downs harm the national interests of both states and leave potential for economic cooperation and conflict resolution untapped. 

Germany must master a delicate equilibrium, maintaining trade, diplomatic relations and strategic cooperation with Turkey on the one hand and opposing Ankara's authoritarian course on the other. 

Steinmeier succeeded in walking this thin line by addressing the opposition and civil society and conveying the message that Germany supports democratisation in Turkey, while also seeking dialogue with President Erdogan.  

This presents a sound approach to a pragmatic policy on Turkey that is geared toward reconciling the interests of both sides but is by no means normatively blind. Such an approach shows empathy for Turkish security interests in a region wracked by wars and conflicts and at the same time demands consideration for historical German sensitivities. 

And it entails not seeing Turkey as a geopolitical rival, for example in the Balkans or the Middle East. Christoph Heusgen, security advisor to former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, offers an example of this viewpoint in his book Führung und Verantwortung. Angela Merkels Außenpolitik und Deutschlands künftige Rolle in der Welt (Leadership and Responsibility: Angela Merkel's Foreign Policy and Germany's Future Role in the World, available in German only, Siedler Verlag, 2023), mentioning Turkey in the same breath as Russia, China and Saudi Arabia.  

One thing is for sure: German-Turkish relations can be made more dynamic primarily through economic and, of late, also municipal cooperation. 

Yasar Aydin  

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