During her trip to Turkey, Germany's justice minister has criticized a lack of freedom of press and expression. With Turkey's EU ambitions on the decline, her comments fell on deaf ears.
German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger carried some heavy baggage to Ankara: 50 copies of Germany's basic law translated into Turkish. The German politician wanted to distribute them as presents whenever possible. But she did not come to Turkey just to bring free handouts.
"Where there were trials against lawyers and journalists, I have brought this issue up," Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said, adding that it was normal for close friends like Berlin and Ankara to talk openly about such issues.
When she brought up the concern of imprisoned Turkish journalists and restrictions to free speech with her Turkish counterpart Sadullah Ergin, however, her criticism was cooly rejected. Many of those imprisoned were not journalists but thieves, arsonists and bankrobbers, Ergin responded. The atmosphere between the two politicians quickly dropped to a record low - Turkey is not a fan of what it sees as meddling with its internal affairs.
Slow reform pace
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger was referring to the latest EU report which registered a rising number of restrictions on press freedom.
"Freedom of the press is one of the biggest problems that Turkey has right now. More than 80 journalists are currently in prison," said Gülay Kizilocak, deputy head of the foundation Stiftung für Türkeistudien, a research group on Turkey with Duisburg University in Germany. "There have been many reforms in Turkey, but there are still a lot of problems."
Putting reforms into practice has always been a slow process in Turkey, Kizilocak said. But Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger did highlight a willingness for reforms during her trip, pointing to the possibility for individuals to complain at the constiutional court as a positive step.
"I see a chance for those who feel their rights are in danger - in particular the rights of freedom of press and expression," she said.
While relations between Germany and Turkey might currently not be the best on the political level, economic ties are better than ever, explains Kizilocak. "Every German investor wants to be active in Turkey. The purchasing power is very strong compared to many of the European countries."
Another key bone of contention is the possible future EU membership for Turkey. While Germany is not blocking those efforts, it is also not actively supporting it.
"It is no comparison to the support that Ankara received from Berlin in the days of Chancellor Schröder," Kizilocak told Deutsche Welle.
Erdogan pushes for EU membership
As recently as Tuesday (30.10.2012), Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan set a deadline: By 2023 at the latest, Turkey should join the European Union, otherwise "the EU will lose, at least it will lose Turkey," he said on a visit to Berlin.
Yet in general, euphoria for the EU has droped significantly in Turkey, says Kizilocak. "In the past, there were almost 80 percent who were in favor of joining; now it's not even 30 percent." He adds that while officially, Ankara still has the goal of joining by 2023, Turkey already has its eyes set on other scenarios as to where it might focus instead of Europe.
Mediator in the Middle East
The Arab Spring has entirely changed Turkish foreign policy, Kizilocak explains. "Turkey seeks to play a special role in the region of the Middle East, both as a mediator but also as someone who'll have somewhat of a say in the region." Erdogan might be thinking about something like an Arab bloc as counter model to Europe's EU, Kizilocak believes.
Even though Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger's visit might have been marked by a somewhat cool reception, she nonetheless didn't want to diminish the significance Turkey has for the EU: Turkey was an important NATO partner and therefore a close ally both to the US and Europe, she said. She also highlighted the efforts that Turkey was doing in helping the around 100,000 refugees coming across the border to flee Syria's civil war.