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Between mistrust and high expectations

Angela Merkel travels to Turkey on Sunday - with an agenda that couldn't be more controversial, as the refugee crisis is at the very top. Talks will take place under difficult conditions.

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Merkel to visit Turkey for migration talks

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert's announcement came as a surprise. Chancellor Angela Merkel will travel to Turkey to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdgan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu - one week after an unprecedented bomb attack rocked the capital, Ankara. The focus of the talks: the coordinated fight against international terrorism, the Syrian conflict and the challenges facing Europe with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Merkel's visit shows just how important Turkey is - for Germany and for the EU - in dealing with increasing numbers of refugees and in fighting the root causes for the mass exodus. The fact that the chancellor is traveling to Ankara right now stems from pragmatic political considerations, political scientist Gülistan Gürbey said. "The only question now is how many bundled agreements can be attained when the goals are so different," Gürbey told DW.

Dr. Gülistan Gürbey (Photo: private)

Gülistan Gürbey does research on German-Turkish relations at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science in Berlin

The auspices for Merkel's journey are not unproblematic: relations between Germany and Turkey have been marked by suspicion and divergent foreign policy strategies for quite some time now.

'Friendly and resilient'

At the same time, both countries in fact share a close relationship that has grown throughout history and that the German Foreign Ministry describes as "friendly, complex and resilient." With a trade volume of 32.6 billion euros ($37 billion), Germany is Turkey's most important trading partner. Turkey, as a member of NATO and a special partner to the EU, is an important ally for Germany when it comes to questions of geostrategic policy. Also, nearly 3 million people with Turkish roots live in Germany, meaning that both countries' civil societies are closely connected and giving rise to something akin to a German-Turkish transnational zone.

A good 15 years ago, Europe presented the prospects of EU membership to Turkey. That clear step toward rapprochement took place while Germany held the EU Council presidency. What began as an exceptional phase of reform in Turkey, with European joy over Erdogan's zeal for common interests, would eventually put German-Turkish relations to the test just a few years later. It was a dynamism that the president of the Deutsch-Türkische Gesellschaft (German-Turkish Society), Gerd Andres, explained to DW as follows: "Erdogan and the AKP pushed long and hard for closer relations with Europe from the Turkish side. But some of the European partners blocked their attempt. It started with Cyprus and continued with France. Then, great expectations were voiced toward Germany; expectations that Germany could not, or would not, fulfill." That led to frustration on both sides.

Erdogan speaking to crowd in Cologne's Lanxess Arena (Photo: Anadolu Agency)

Erdogan has many fans in Germany, who for some years have even been able to vote for him

Frustration soon gave way to estrangement. Around 2004, members of Merkel's own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) began floating the idea of offering Turkey a "privileged partnership" rather than EU membership. In November 2012, Merkel herself took a clear position on the topic, stating: "We do not want full membership for Turkey."

At a certain point, it seemed that Turkey did not want membership either. More and more, it seemed that Erdogan's government was pursuing policies that had very little to do with basic European values, and which were accompanied by massive abuses of freedom of the press, free speech and human rights. "From 2009 and 2010 onwards, the AKP, under Erdogan's leadership, made a drastic change of course. One noticed changes to the justice system, there were domestic policy disputes, disputes with the Gülen movement, they went after critical journalists and persecuted young students," Andres said.

Dr. Gerd Andres (Photo: dpa)

Dr. Gerd Andres is president of the German-Turkish Society

Erdogan was vehemently criticized internationally, and his government was accused of harshly overreacting to protests at Istanbul's Gezi Park in 2013. He was dismissive of critics and instead let loose a tirade of inflammatory rhetoric aimed at, among others, his European partners. Erdogan attempted to portray the wave of protests that rolled through his country as a provocation from abroad, designed to weaken Turkey internally in order to call into question its role as a regional power, Gülistan Gürbey said.

Balancing act

The divergency of Turkish-German relations seems to have peaked with the conflict in Syria. In the midst of the political melange of civil war, Germany stumbled into an absurd situation. On the one hand, until recently it deployed German Patriot missiles to protect Turkey from Syrian air strikes. On the other, German soldiers are training Peshmerga militias in northern Iraq for the fight against "Islamic State" (IS). Though it is not these Kurds that the Turks have been bombing for the last several months, but those from the outlawed militant wing of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), the situation is nonetheless a bizarre one. Not to mention the accusations that Ankara initially gave indirect support to "IS" with the intention of toppling Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. With that, says political scientist Gülistan Gürbey, Turkey knowingly torpedoed Germany's objectives in Syria.

When Angela Merkel travels to Turkey on Sunday, she will more than likely be performing a high-wire act. The "climate of speechlessness" that Gerd Andres describes will no doubt make it difficult for the chancellor to regain lost trust. But she has no other choice, as over the last several days, political players from the EU and the Federal Republic have repeatedly emphasized the key role that Turkey has to play in the refugee crisis.

"This objective will trump all other concerns, no matter how justified those may be," Gürbey said. Merkel's negotiating priority is pragmatism. The chancellor openly admits as much: "Foreign policy is an interplay between the values that we feel obliged to uphold, and the interests that we have." Which values will ultimately be weighed against what interests in Ankara, remains to be seen.

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