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Back from the Brink


The withdrawal of German troops from a Turkish airbase is underway amid an unprecedented diplomatic row between Berlin and Ankara. Economic interests, however, should point to a de-escalation.

© REUTERS/Umit Bektas

It was a long time coming: On June 7, the German government agreed to the withdrawal of 260 soldiers, six reconnaissance carriers and a refueling aircraft from the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey. The move marked the culmination of a drawn-out spat over a ban on German lawmakers visiting troops participating in a US-led military coalition against the so-called Islamic State (IS). German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said the troops would be re-deployed to Jordan’s al-Azraq base at the end of the month and that the transfer would be complete by mid-July.

It was the most recent low in bilateral relations that have been laden with tension for months. This time around, however, the timing may be detrimental for Turkey: as campaigning heats up in Germany ahead of the September 24 federal elections against the backdrop of an increasingly intolerant electorate, Ankara risks losing its top economic partner.

Banned from Incirlik, Again

A delegation of German lawmakers had previously been barred from entering the airbase in June 2016, shortly after the Bundestag passed a resolution referring to the massacre of Armenians at the hands of the Ottomans as “genocide.” Ankara eventually authorized the visit in October 2016, but according to Defense Ministry officials, six lawmakers’ entry permits were still pending in March.

Ankara did not issue an official statement on why it considered it necessary to block the parliamentarians’ entry into Incirlik. It only stated that the visit was not considered appropriate at the time and that, if Germany wanted to regain access to the airbase, it had to abandon its hawkish approach toward Turkey. Martin Schäfer, a spokesman for the German Foreign Office, was told through private channels that the steps were taken in retaliation against Berlin’s criticism of Ankara and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The sides have been clashing over a series of issues for months. Germany has been critical of Erdoğan’s crackdown after the failed military coup of July 2016 and has offered asylum to Turkish journalists, intellectuals, and military personnel that have fled the country since. Berlin also accused Turkey of operating an extensive network of spies on German soil in pursuit of supporters of Fethullah Gülen – a US-based cleric Erdoğan claimed was the mastermind behind the coup attempt. The fact that local authorities withheld permission for Turkish ministers to campaign in Germany in the run-up to the April constitutional referendum on granting Erdoğan sweeping new powers introduced further friction. More recently, tensions escalated over the arrest of German-Turkish journalists Deniz Yücel and Meşale Tolu on charges of disseminating terrorist propaganda in Turkey, as well as Erdoğan’s accusation that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was employing “Nazi methods” against Turkish “brother citizens and ministers” in Germany.

In what seems to have become its standard way of dealing with crises, the Turkish side did not try to de-escalate tensions with its NATO ally, instead remaining defiant. Ankara said it might have been possible for German parliamentarians to gain entry to Incirlik, but only after meeting a series of steep demands: retracting the resolution on the Armenian “genocide,” banning Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) activities in Germany, and returning Turkish asylum seekers that allegedly supported the coup.

Unless Berlin was ready to deliver on these points, Turkish pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak stated, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel would return empty-handed from a trip intended to resolve the matter. Gabriel’s Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also remarked that Turkey would not “beg” for German troops to stay and that they “[are] welcome to do whatever they want.”

Consider the Economy

There are many reasons why such intransigence is misguided. Even an interest in preserving Turkey’s economic relations with Germany should be enough to prompt Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to dial down its tone.

Germany has been the top destination for Turkish exports for the past ten years. In 2016, Turkey’s exports to Germany were valued at $14 billion – roughly 10 percent of the value of its total exports. Furthermore, trade relations are dynamic, having almost quadrupled since the end of the Cold War. Although Turkey’s trade volume has shrunk in the last few years, exports to Germany have consistently made up 9 percent of its overall export volume.

In the first three months of 2017, foreign direct investment (FDI) from the EU accounted for more than three-quarters of investments flowing into Turkey. Germany currently ranks among the top four countries investing in Turkey after the Netherlands, Austria, and the United Kingdom. Of the 1,120 Turkish companies founded in 2016 through European FDI, 400 were funded by Germany. In the first quarter of this year, German investments flowed into 68 Turkish companies, or one-third of all companies founded during the period with FDI from the EU.

Frustrated Electorate

Erdoğan is well aware of Turkey’s strategic importance. The country is being used as a base for NATO’s Middle East operations and is instrumental in stemming the flow of refugees into Europe as part of an agreement with Brussels, which many have argued has given Turkey a dangerous degree of leverage in bilateral relations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is adamant on keeping the deal intact, which has strengthened Erdoğan’s assessment that Europe is wary of escalating the refugee crisis by risking a permanent rupture with Turkey.

The window for reconciliation may be closing, however. In an ARD-DeutschlandTrend survey conducted in February, 83 percent of German citizens said that Germany should confront Turkey more decisively. When asked whether they viewed Turkey as a reliable partner four months later, only 3 percent of respondents said yes, and 57 percent said that the chances of strengthening German-Turkish relations in the coming months were weak. In the run-up to the general election, the German electorate seems to have a low tolerance for Turkey’s transgressions – which may result in a more combative stance by German politicians eyeing political gains at home.

Several politicians have already expressed their frustration over the Incirlik issue. Claudia Roth, a member of the opposition Green Party and one of the vice-presidents of the Bundestag, referred to the ban as a “political provocation” and a new escalation in German-Turkish relations. Christine Lambrecht, the Social Democrats’ (SPD) chief whip in the Bundestag, described the showdown as “a slap in the face” for those trying to engage in dialogue with Turkey.

Merkel, meanwhile, has opted for a more conciliatory approach, describing the incident as “unfortunate.” Even von der Leyen, instead of condemning an act that many defense ministers would consider an unacceptable violation of trust between partners, placed emphasis on the fact that the lawmakers were still permitted to enter the NATO base in Konya. Others argued that this could hardly be framed as a success.

Watch Out for Caveats

Therein lies the crux of the matter: as the leader of a country that urgently requires Turkey’s cooperation, the chancellor is limited in the degree of aggression she can display. Perhaps to her frustration, she is unable to project herself as Erdoğan’s opponent. But in light of her effort to win a fourth term in office, Merkel cannot afford to seem feeble, either, making her more likely to engage in subtle gestures of resistance. The fact that Germany headed the list of countries that declined Erdoğan’s invitation to host next year’s NATO summit in Istanbul is a case in point.

To be sure, Germany will not do anything to jeopardize the refugee deal. But Turkey may feel the brunt of the fallout with Germany in the economic realm: a continued impasse could result in less FDI from Germany due to a lack of trust in the country, a market that is less willing to buy Turkish products, and more difficult negotiations on upgrading the customs union with the EU.

In order to keep the channels for economic collaboration open, Erdoğan would be well-advised to tone down his rhetoric. Instead of vitriolic attacks, what is needed is a recalibration of foreign policy that takes into consideration the economic realities on the ground. Failure in this regard – at a time when German politicians are sensitive toward anti-Turkish sentiment amongst voters – may forge a political climate that is less conducive to cooperation and therefore detrimental to Turkey’s economic interests.

The good news is that the Turkish public will likely be on board: according to a recent study by Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Turkish citizens identified Germany as the most reliable in a group of countries that included its neighbors, the United States, and China. Interestingly, trust in Germany was strongest in the western Black Sea region and the northeastern province of Anatolia, despite their overwhelming support for Erdoğan’s AKP in recent elections and the constitutional referendum.

It could be considered a relief that, when time is running out, Erdoğan has the domestic support he needs to take the necessary steps to change track. One can only hope that Turkey’s increasingly powerful president will reconsider his stance and act accordingly.