The development of relations between the European Union and Turkey is becoming increasingly reminiscent of a long, drawn-out chess game in which both players have decided to rid the game of all logic once and for all. This impression is deceptive, however.
The on-going row between Berlin and Ankara has its own internal springs. Both sides clearly intend to keep raising the stakes in the game bit by bit in anticipation of when the losses of their partner/opponent (or their constituents) exceed the potential gain or they simply lose their nerve.
The reaction of the Turkish government (i.e. President Erdogan) to the Bundestag’s resolution to recognise the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide was as predictable as it was unproductive. It is already clear that the Turkish authorities simply cannot afford to spark a conflict with Germany, their key European partner. Especially as a similar step taken by the French parliament in late 2011 did not have any particular consequences, despite the militant rhetoric of Erdogan, who promised that Paris’ «misguided step… would change nothing for Turkey, but would change a great deal for France, and the French needed to know this». Ankara even talked about reducing the level of diplomatic representation between the two countries, but then everything was forgotten. These days, both Turkey and France prefer not to mention it.
As far as Germany is concerned, therefore, and as noted by The Foreign Policy, Turkey risks losing a great deal by whipping up fervour and raising the stakes: «Ankara has hoped the eased travel could lay the groundwork for eventual EU membership. Recalling its ambassador to Germany, Turkey’s most important trading partner and the very country that spearheaded the recent deal, might not be a great place to start».
This is especially true given that at stake is the 6 billion euros promised to Ankara by Brussels, which the European Union can block should the conflict between Germany and Turkey get out of control. So the warning («don’t lose Germany!») issued by Milliyet, a leading Turkish newspaper, fully reflects the mood in Turkey’s corridors of power: «It should not be forgotten that political, economic, military and technical cooperation with Germany is crucial for Turkey, especially at a time when it has problems with many countries, including the US and Russia… In order to prevent the matter from becoming a crisis that will harm bilateral relations, the response should be ‘controlled’ and should have clear boundaries. Impulsive and populist statements and actions may be met with momentary applause, but their consequences will clearly work against us», writes Milliyet.
However, the bulk of the Turkish media has unanimously spoken out against Germany, with the newspaper Sabah referring to the country as «our comrade-in-arms» who «occasionally tries to stab us in the back».
As for the reasons why the Bundestag passed the resolution, these deserve a closer look. All the more so since it would have been more logical to look at the document in 2015, which marked the 100th anniversary of the tragedy of the Armenian people. The draft of a similar resolution was in fact passed by Bundestag deputies at the first reading in the spring of 2015, but its further consideration was later blocked.
There are two factors relating to the internal political life of Germany that need be taken into account here.
The first is the wave of criticism that arose in Germany as a result of Angela Merkel agreeing to prosecute television presenter Jan Böhmermann, the author of a satirical poem ridiculing Erdogan. With the general elections in Germany fast approaching, political parties are having to pay more attention to the mood of their constituents and, by passing the resolution to recognise the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire, Bundestag deputies, including Merkel’s allies in the CDU, have tried to balance the ‘Turkish scales’ a little in Berlin’s policy.
The other factor that can explain the Bundestag’s resolution is related to the results of the presidential elections that took place in neighbouring Austria in April and May 2016. The failure of the candidates from the two traditional ruling parties – the Social Democratic Party of Austria and the Austrian People’s Party – amid an unprecedented rise in the popularity of Norbert Hofer, the candidate for the far-right Freedom Party, which received the support of nearly 50 percent of the voters, showed the German Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats from the ruling coalition the fate that lies ahead should they continue their anti-national refugee policy and their pandering to Turkey.
Further developments in relations between Berlin and Ankara will, to a large extent, depend on the mood prevailing in Brussels. Hot on the heels of the row between Germany and Turkey, the European External Action Service (EEAS) produced a remarkable quick reference video listing the criteria for visa-free travel for the associated countries that implies the decision to abolish visas for the citizens of Turkey may be postponed. For visa liberalisation, Turkey must meet 72 requirements set by the European Commission, but Brussels has repeatedly stated that these requirements are not being met. And this is a much more serious challenge for the Turkish authorities than the initiative of German lawmakers.