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Difficult talks

Ayhan Simsek, AnkaraFebruary 26, 2013

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan could not bridge their differences on key topics but agreed to continue an open dialogue. Both leaders hailed strong economic ties.

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel review a guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony in Ankara February 25, 2013. REUTERS/Altan Burgucu (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS)
Angela Merkel zu Besuch in der TürkeiImage: Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed support for reviving Turkey's EU accession process on Monday (25.02.2013), but urged Ankara to take steps towards normalizing relations with Cyprus.

"We want the process to advance, despite the fact that I am still skeptical about Turkey's full membership of the EU," Merkel said following talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. She stressed that proceeding with the accession talks would depend on Ankara's Cyprus policy, and urged Turkey to open its ports and airports to traffic from Greek Cyprus.

Turkey began EU accession negotiations in 2005, but has made little progress since then partly because of opposition from former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as the Cyprus problem. While current French President Francois Hollande recently signaled a policy change and Merkel promised support for Turkey's EU process, Cyprus remains the major stumbling block.

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel shake hands during a welcoming ceremony in Ankara February 25, 2013. REUTERS/Altan Burgucu (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS)
Merkel and Erdogan held long talks in AnkaraImage: Reuters

Prime Minister Erdogan gently turned down Merkel's demand on Monday, stressing that the Greek-led Republic of Cyprus does not represent the whole island - rather it is one of the two political entities in the divided country. Earlier, Merkel also called on Turkey to extend its customs union with the EU to Cyprus, saying that this would be “neither a bad nor a difficult thing” for Turkey, but would help clear the path to the EU.

Turkey does not officially recognize the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member, and says it will only extend the customs union to the island following a comprehensive settlement there.

Other problems

Disagreements between Merkel and Erdogan were not limited to the Cyprus problem. The German chancellor also underlined the importance of press freedom in Turkey and criticized long detention periods for dozens of imprisoned journalists, which critics say are politically motivated. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), some 76 Turkish journalists were in jail as of August 2012, and at least 61 of those were imprisoned as a direct result of their work.

Asked about these charges, Erdogan claimed that less than 10 of these prisoners were journalists. “They are not imprisoned for their journalistic work,” Erdogan said. “They are imprisoned either for participating in coup plots, or having illegal arms or acting in coordination with terror organizations.”

“The judiciary is independent in Turkey and we have to respect this, just as we do in Germany,” Erdogan said.

During the press conference, German Chancellor also underlined the importance of religious freedom for Turkey, called for religious foundations to operate freely in Turkey - and in every country in the world. She also met with Turkey's Muslim and non-Muslim religious minority leaders, though representatives of Turkey's Alawite community were not invited to the meeting, at the request of the Turkish government, to the surprise of Merkel's delegation. Last month, Erdogan publicly criticized Germany for trying to create divisions among Turkey's Muslims by giving support to the Alawite community.

Kurdish conundrum

One of the key topics in Merkel's visit was combating the activities of the Kurdish extremist group the PKK in Europe and Germany, but Turkish hopes for concrete measures remain unfulfilled. Erdogan recently accused Germany and other European nations of not responding to Turkish requests for the extradition of militants wanted by Turkey.

“Germany will do its best in the struggle against terrorism, and against the PKK,” Merkel said during her press conference with Erdogan, and promised closer cooperation between German and Turkish security officials - though the Turkish prime minister made no comment.

Merkel described Germany's Turkish community as a bridge between the two countries, but refrained from announcing any steps to address their complaints about German laws that prevent them from acquiring dual nationality. Merkel did not show any flexibility on visa liberalization either, while Erdogan stuck to his own position and said that Turkey will only sign a “readmission agreement “ with the EU and accept illegal migrants who reach Europe via Turkey, if the EU takes simultaneous steps towards visa liberalization for Turkish citizens.

Kurds living in Greece hold a banner featuring the portrait of former PKK leader Ocalan during a demonstration near the French embassy in Athens on June 27, 2009. Kurds marched to the French embassy demanding the release of the Kurds recently arrested in France for attacks on Turkish targets. AFP PHOTO/ Louisa Gouliamaki (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkey demanded better German cooperation in dealing with the PKKImage: AFP

Economic ties

Despite differences on these key topics, the highlight of Merkel's visit was the expanding economic and trade ties between Turkey and Germany. Both leaders hailed strong economic ties and promised new steps to support cooperation among German and Turkish businesses.

Attending the “Turkish-German CEO Forum” in Ankara on Monday, Merkel praised Turkey's recent economic boom, and promised to support increased cooperation in the fields of energy and infrastructure, mentioning the building of railways and airports.

In a joint declaration, CEOs from the two countries said that energy and innovation are the two key areas in which Turkey and Germany intend to deepen economic cooperation.

Germany is Turkey's main trading and economic partner, and the two countries are aiming to reach a new trade level of $40 billion (30 billion euros) this year.