Germany's Day of Unification, Oct. 3, celebrates togetherness and solidarity. This year, however, it also marks the beginning of EU accession talks with Turkey, an issue that has had a divisive effect on German society.
Merkel's approach is far apart from that of Prime Minister Erdogan
Turkey's possible membership in the European Union has been one of Europe, and Germany's, hottest debates in recent years. On Oct. 3, things get a bit more serious, as official membership negotiations begin between Brussels and Ankara.
The question of whether Turkey should be granted a full EU membership or the "privileged partnership" favored by Merkel and her conservative allies in Europe dominates German parliament discussion. And the confusion over Germany's future leadership certainly won't help things.
During the short, and hard-fought German election campaign, politicians chose to leave the inflammatory issue out of stump speeches. But the stance on the issue by Germany's major parties is anything but murky. The outgoing Social Democratic - Green party coalition that has ruled Germany for the past seven years sees a Turkish EU membership as a crucial bridge to the Muslim world, while the Christian Union parties and their opposition partners, the Free Democratic Party, think of it as an integration challenge too overwhelming for Europe.
Schröder's strategic bridge
Not a campaign issue, but Turks know where Schröder stands
German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has been one of the most prominent crusaders in Europe in favor of Turkey's EU membership. In speech after speech, Schröder has done his best to convince the skeptics of its importance for Europe.
"Negotiations about the accession of this country will last 10 to 15 years," Schröder has said. "The negotiating concept will allow that we eliminate migration to our job market. It will allow for both sides to interrupt or call off the talks. Thus it is an appropriate instrument for reaching our goal without putting any EU country, including Germany, in too difficult a position," he said.
The German government argues that it would be far more dangerous to ignore Turkey. By offering it the potential of full membership, Schröder and allies argue, they will push Turkey to continue along its reform path and get a chance to build a strategic bridge to the Muslim world.
Green party concerns
"If we can manage to make the connection between non-fundamentalist Islam and the values of the Western Enlightenment, then we will have an increase in security which is of extraordinary significance," Schröder said.
Former Green party head Claudia Roth sees hurdles, but none that are too high
Former Green party head Claudia Roth adds that Turkish membership in the EU would force major improvements in Turkey's civil rights and human rights practices as well as its dealing with its own troubled past.
"On paper we have passed really crucial packages of bills, but now it's about concrete implementation, especially when it comes to 'zero tolerance for cruel and unusual punishment'," Roth said. "We have to make sure that Turkey will hold to its ban on torture and prosecute and punish potential or actual torturers."
But what the outgoing government thinks is by no means the majority opinion in Germany, something chancellor-in-waiting Angela Merkel has used to justify her calls for "privileged partnership" instead of full membership.
Union: EU has too much to handle
"We argue the rationale for motivation behind our objection (to full membership) foremost with the question: what can the existing EU accomplish in its current composition?" has said.
She continued, "We are 25 countries, with Romania and Bulgaria we will have two more. And as far as that is concerned, we must face the central question of whether the integration power of the current EU is suffering. I think that Europe can't handle it at the moment, and so I support the option of a privileged partnership," she said.
The speaker of the CSU parliamentary group for European issues in the Bundestag, Gerd Müller, called the notion of expanding the EU while strengthening it at the same time a "grand illusion".
"The deepening and the parallel widening of the EU is the grand illusion of the European Union," Müller argued. "You can't hope to ratify a European Constitution, transfer major powers of national sovereignty of the EU states to Brussels, and at the same time extend the borders of the EU to Anatolia, to Asia Minor," he said.
What about a grand coalition?
Turkey will remain a controversial topic for debate, and could be a major strain on the likely grand coalition. In general, the two largest German parties agree only that Turkey will need to continue with reforms if negotiations are to continue. But where the negotiations should lead will continue to divide German politicians and the electorate.