After months of populist opposition to Turkey’s EU bid, German conservative leader Angela Merkel has arrived to a skeptical reception in Ankara and warnings not to exploit the issue for narrow electoral gains.
Niceties first -- Merkel (left) lays a wreath at Kemal Ataturk's mausoleum.
The Turkish press left no doubt what it thought of Angela Merkel’s visit to the country on Monday. "She’s only coming to say no", mass-selling daily Milliyet explained to its readers. A tiny photo of Merkel was also buried on page 16 of the paper, an indication that hardly anyone in Turkey knows the name of Germany’s leader of the opposition Christian Democrats.
"Hayir" or "no" was also the most common reaction heard on Istanbul’s streets from those who had some inkling of the German politician. "Angela Merkel? No, no -- let’s see ... she’s against Turkey’s EU membership, CDU, right?" said one passerby.
With Merkel overwhelmingly associated with anti-Turkish sentiment as far as Ankara’s bid for EU membership goes, the German conservative leader’s two-day trip to Turkey is expected to be far from easy.
No full EU membership
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
But so far Merkel has shown no signs of softening her tough stance. In talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan(photo), she is expected to underline her party’s staunch opposition to the EU opening the door to Turkey – a view she reiterated just hours before her departure to Ankara in a television interview. "At this point we see the European Union being overburdened, in other words we’re skeptical about taking in Turkey," Merkel said.
Merkel, whose party has mainly cited Turkey’s predominantly Muslim population as a reason for wanting to keep it out of the 15-nation overwhelmingly Christian bloc, has instead proposed a so-called third way in the form of a "privileged partnership" between Turkey and the EU.
But it’s a compromise that’s unlikely to find much resonance among the majority of Turks, many of whom already have cultural and familial affiliations to neighboring Europe. Around two million Turks live in Germany, making it the biggest Turkish minority in the European Union.
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan said in the run-up to Merkel’s visit that it made him "sad" to hear the argument that Turkey didn’t fit into the EU because it was "culturally different." Erdogan added, "We don’t see a cultural unity in Europe, no Christian club and also no geographical whole."
A chance for Turkey in Europe
Instead Turkey has argued it sees a political and strategic chance for itself in Europe as well as serving as a bridge between the EU and the Islamic world.
Turkey is also making efforts to implement reforms and clean up its poor human rights record to meet EU criteria.
To coincide with Merkel’s visit to a Christian community in Ankara, Turkey has also issued a legal work and residency permit for the first German priest in the country, spelling an end to the murky dealings governing such processes till now.
No to populist line
But one thing that Merkel will find difficult to justify is her party’s and the Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union’s, decision to make Turkey’s EU bid a major electoral plank in European Parliament polls in June. "An inner-party political election campaign over Turkey’s EU membership should not be allowed to take place in Germany," Erdogan has warned.
Even Turkey’s ambassador to Germany, Ali Irtemcelik, has cautioned against abusing his country’s bid for EU membership for electioneering purposes.
On Monday he told a German newspaper that Turkey was well aware of the fact that a full membership would take many years to complete and warned it would be irresponsible to stir resentment against Germany’s Turks for the sake of short-term gains at the polls.