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Merkel meets Erdogan amid regional tension

Deger Akal | Seda Serdar
January 24, 2020

During a brief visit, Chancellor Merkel plans to address multiple topics with President Erdogan, from regional conflicts to human rights issues. German politicians believe continuing dialog is crucial.

Merkel and Erdogan in Istanbul
Image: AFP/M. Kula

Germany and Turkey have rarely seen eye-to-eye lately, but instability in the Middle East and North Africa is a growing concern for both countries. Keeping dialog channels open, as well as cooperation is crucial to tackling growing conflicts in the region.

For the German government, one of the major concerns is the possibility of  a new wave of refugees. This continues to make Turkey an important actor in the region, which Merkel has to come to terms with.

Transactional relationship

Andreas Nick, a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) lawmaker who also sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German parliament, told DW that "any sustainable solution for the region will also have to take Turkey's legitimate security interests into account," referring to Syria and the migration flow from the neighboring country.

Turkey sees the YPG forces in northern Syria as a branch of the PKK, which is classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the European Union. Not only does Ankara want this aspect to be explicitly recognized but it is also persistent about establishing a safe zone to which Syrian refugees could be returned.

The CDU's Nick said he expects the return of "at least some of the refugees in Turkey to their homelands in Syria" over time. However, Nick once again emphasized that Germany will not support any forced resettlement.

It is yet to be seen what Merkel will do to prevent Turkey from providing military support to warring parties or taking unilateral military action in the region. Turkey's commitment to the UN weapons embargo at the Berlin Conference on Libya has been welcomed by Germany.

Prof. Erdal Yalcin at Konstanz University believes that Turkey now has a bargaining chip and added that "Turkey gave up something and can ask for something" in return. Yalcin defines the bilateral relations as transactional rather than cooperation among partners.

Tackling irregular migration

Syrien Flüchtlinge
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/H. Malla

In July, Germany assumes the European Council Presidency, adding to the importance of Merkel's visit to Istanbul.

The EU-Turkey migration pact, the future of financial aid to Turkey, modernization of the EU-Turkey customs union and how Germany will shape the EU agenda are of all of great interest to Ankara.

Above all, tackling irregular migration continues to be a crucial topic for both sides. Speculation over the future of the EU-Turkey migration deal is growing as Ankara accuses EU member states of not honoring their commitments.

Social Democrat (SPD) lawmaker in charge of foreign policy, Nils Schmid, told DW that the payments allocated within the framework will continue for two more years and both sides will later evaluate how to proceed.

"Maybe a stronger social infrastructure for all people living in Turkey could be the case," said Schmid. "So not just for refugees, but also social and educational infrastructure for Turks themselves," he added.

Migration expert Murat Erdogan, however, said the deal was limited to Syrian migrants and noted that "a new deal is needed."

Strained economic ties

Deutsche und türkische Fahne Flash-Galerie
Image: picture alliance/dpa

"Merkel will not only talk about Syrians and the migration flow caused by the fighting in Idlib, but also about the increasing number of people coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran since last year,” said the expert, stressing that the majority of people going to Greece are no longer from Syria.

The increasing number of migrants is also a heavy burden on the Turkish economy.

Furthermore, recent political tensions between Berlin and Ankara had a detrimental effect on Turkey's economic ties with Germany, its key trade partner. $30.6 billion (€27.6 billion) worth of trade in the first 10 months of 2018 fell back to $27.3 billion in the first 10 months of 2019. German car giant Volkswagen postponed the opening of a new production facility due to Turkey's military operation in northern Syria.

An Energy Forum and a Joint Economic and Trade Committee (JETCO), scheduled for last October and November respectively, were also postponed by the German government following Turkey's Operation Peace Spring in October 2019.

While the Turkish side pushed for these meetings, Merkel's government stood its ground. Instead, Chancellor Merkel will take part in a round table of the German-Turkish Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Istanbul.

Emphasis on scientific freedom

During the visit, Merkel and Erdogan will open the campus of the Turkish-German University (TAU) in Istanbul.

The SPD's Schmid said Merkel would raise the issue of the rule of law and added that "addressing the significance of scientific freedom for an open society and for innovation in the economy is an important signal."

Professor Murat Erdogan from TAU University agreed. He told DW that by attending the inauguration, Merkel aims to "utilize science diplomacy to maintain and enrich dialog channels with Turkey."

Democratic decline

Ahead of the visit Bijan Djir-Sarai, the foreign policy spokesman for the opposition Free Democratic Party (FDP) called on Merkel to make it clear to President Erdogan that he "needs to act like a NATO partner, which hasn't been the case for a long time."

He also told DW that "in recent years, there hasn't been any development in bilateral relations. On the contrary, the democratic deficit in Turkey has escalated."

According to recent numbers from the German Foreign Ministry, 60 German citizens are imprisoned in Turkey.

Both the incarceration of German citizens and the case of lawyer Yilmaz S. who worked as a consultant for the German Embassy in Ankara for more than 20 years, and is currently in prison on allegations of "espionage," are difficult issues between the two countries, as are alleged human rights violations against activists and politicians by Turkish authorities.

Erdogan's repression of the opposition with arbitrary arrests and a lack of judicial independence are seen by the German government as important obstacles to the normalization of bilateral relations. During her visit, Chancellor Merkel will also meet with civil society representatives and lawyers to get firsthand information on the current situation.