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Privileged partnership?

Baha Güngör / gdFebruary 23, 2013

German Chancellor Angela Merkel began a two-day visit to Turkey on Sunday. Topping the agenda are talks with Turkish Premier Erdogan on economic relations and the sluggish pace of EU membership talks.

Angela Merkel and Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a press conference in 2012
Image: Getty Images

Turkey was once called the "sick man of Europe." But that was a long time ago. In light of the recent economic success, and growing international and diplomatic importance of the country, the apparently self-confident Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to hold talks on Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Ankara.

Turkey's new position appears to add weight to European Union Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger's prediction that Germany and France would beg Turkey to join the EU within the next decade.

In this context, German Foreign Affairs Committee head Ruprecht Polenz has called for opening new chapters in EU membership negotiations with Turkey despite the country's blockade of Cyprus, in order to "allow both sides to have a systematic discussion."

The Cyprus dispute

So far, Turkey has staunchly refused to expand access to a customs union to the 10 latest EU members - including the Republic of Cyprus, which Turkey has yet to recognize. The expansion would allow Cypriot ships and planes to approach Turkish ports unchecked - a step the government in Ankara is still not ready to take.

The Turks appeared to be irritated by the slow pace of negotiations, such as the fact that during 2005 EU membership talks, only 13 of the 35 negotiation chapters were open, and that only the chapter on science and research had been closed.

View of the Asian part of Istanbul (Photo: dpa)
Turkey is a rising economic power in the region, one with growing geostrategical importanceImage: picture-alliance/dpa

However, two major factors have led to the recent strengthening of Turkish self-confidence. First, its location at the intersection of Europe, the Middle East and Asia has caused the country's geostrategic importance to grow. Second, Turkey's economy has been expanding at rates EU countries can only dream of.

'Privileged partnership'

Despite last year's GDP growth of less than 4 percent, following expansion rates of 9.2 percent in 2010 and 8.5 percent in 2011, the euro zone debt crisis and the conflict in Syria seems not to have caused permanent damage to the Turkish economy.

Chancellor Merkel is unlikely to move away from her position of favoring a "privileged partnership" between Turkey and the EU instead of granting full membership. However, both Turkish and German diplomats are speaking of possible "positive signals," after French President Francois Hollande proposed opening a further negotiation chapter on regional policy.

Conflicting issues

Although EU membership proceedings are important for the Turkish government, more pressing matters involve settling differing policies on dual citizenship and visa requirements for Turkish citizens. This is why Merkel's statements on these two subjects are so eagerly anticipated.

During his visit to Turkey two weeks ago, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich stated that Turkish citizens would not be exempted from visa requirements when traveling to Germany. The same goes for granting dual citizenship to Turks living in Germany, which is not common practice.

During a visit to Berlin last October, Erdogan surprised his fellow countrymen by urging them to make efforts to further integrate into Germany society, and to internalize German culture by reading the works of Goethe and Kant. However, on a previous trip to Germany in 2008, he had criticized the country's integration policies, warning that assimilation was a "crime against humanity."

In the dispute over visa requirements, the Turks make reference to the many existing bureaucratic hurdles, even for Turkish businessmen interested in investing in Germany. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called this "humiliating treatment" of his country as an EU membership candidate.

German and Turkish passports side-by-side
Dual citizenship for Turks in Germany remains controversialImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Observers believe that while in Ankara, Merkel will point to Turkey's ongoing negotiations with the European Commission and foreclose the possibility of a solely German decision. However, as long as no commitments are made on the visa matter, Turkey will probably not be willing to take back refugees who fled from its borders into Greece - an issue considered to be very important for the EU.

Fighting terrorism

Another essential aspect of German-Turkish relations is the joint effort against religious or politically motivated extremism and international terrorism. According to Germany security authorities, there is room for improvement in cooperation between the countries. An agreement is expected to be signed stipulating that the interior ministers of both countries are to meet semi-annually to discuss security matters.

On Merkel's agenda in Ankara will also be the situation in Iran, the war in Syria and the conflict in the Middle East. Talks on economic ties, as well as reconciliation between Turkey and neighboring Armenia, are also scheduled.