Dr. Rainer Hermann

Erdogan’s Referendum and German’s Dilemma

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FRANKFURT, Germany — Turkish citizens who went to the polls on April 16 were saying “yes” or “no” not only to a new constitution but to the future of relations with Europe. This was the interpretation offered at a public debate organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a think-tank linked to the German Liberal Party (FDP). Convened on May 19 near Frankfurt, the event addressed the theme: “The Sick Democracy on the Bosporus: Is Turkey Taking Leave of the West?” The round table, moderated by Dr. Rainer Hermann, who was the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s correspondent in Turkey for more than a decade, brought together prominent politicians who have been involved in bilateral relations with Turkey.

Dr. Hans-Georg Fleck, current director of the think-tank’s Istanbul bureau, was joined by Dr. Jörg-Uwe Hahn and Nicola Beer, both members of the regional parliament in Hessen.

It was clear from the opening greetings by Hahn, that the political deterioration inside Turkey had cast a pall on relations with Germany. Over the past ten years, the Hessen government has tried to develop ties, both on the city and state level, and was the first to set up partnerships with Bursa. Now, Hahn said, he was very saddened, since contact has been interrupted; his counterpart, the Vali of Bursa, is now sitting in a jail, along with hundreds of thousands of other Turks accused of association with the Gülen movement, officially inculpated with the coup attempt last summer.

The outcome of the referendum has only aggravated this state of affairs. As Fleck detailed in his introductory analysis of the vote, those who supported the new constitution in hopes of achieving stability and security would be disappointed; the enhanced powers granted to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will neither help alleviate economic ills, especially growing unemployment, nor contribute to solving problems deriving from the oppression of the Kurdish (and other) minority populations. The collapse of the tourist industry (which he characterized as more important for Turkey than the auto industry for Germany) and falling currency rates have resulted from the political crisis following the coup attempt and massive crackdown. Economic revival will depend on development of the younger population, which will require advances in education, which, he said, would not benefit from the referendum results. If the education system in the country was already abysmal, the mass firings of competent academics have worsened the situation. These teachers have lost not only their jobs, but their pensions, their social standing and, in many cases, their very freedom. The situation in the judiciary, where young, inexperienced judges have replaced those thrown out, the perspective is as bleak.

That said, the speaker hastened to stress that the results were indeed very close, as nearly half those who cast their ballots voted against the changes, and thus against Erdogan’s move towards autocratic rule. Rejecting the “yes” voters’ illusions of regaining some mythical Ottoman glory, the “no” camp, which included Kemalist and pro-minority voters, is characterized by its pro-Western, pro-European orientation. The question for Turkey’s partners in Europe is: how to deal with this highly polarized population? How to provide support for the very substantial sector of Turkish society which is adamantly opposed to Erdogan and the AKP’s dictatorial ambitions?

Should Turkey Enter The EU?

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The issue is not academic for the German government. Should Berlin join those in Europe who want to end all discussion with Ankara about its bid for membership in the European Union? If, as Erdogan has threatened, the death penalty is reintroduced, that will automatically terminate Turkey’s chances for membership, since the EU outlaws it. Even now, debate is rife as to whether or not German authorities would allow Turkish citizens residing here to vote in a referendum on the death penalty; thus far, the position has been negative, as no campaign propaganda for such would be compatible with German law. Linked to the issue of EU membership is the question of whether or not Europe should continue providing Turkey with funds allocated for the process.

In the course of a lively debate, moderator Rainer Hermann posed the provocative questions, “Are the EU negotiations, then, simply a farce?” And should the funding stop? Whereas Fleck argued that Turkey should take the first step, to decide whether or not it still wants to join Europe, Beer countered that the Europeans should put a stop to the process. Erdogan’s provocations, she said, had been his way of testing how far he could go and, in her view, “the limits of the tolerable have long since been overstepped.” Therefore she called for not opening any further chapters in the negotiations. As for the funds, which she said were still flowing without any accountability as to where they were being allocated, Fleck said they had been appropriated but not yet delivered, and that money for refugee program support at least was under control.

The refugee crisis represents a further challenge to bilateral relations. What, Hermann asked, if Erdogan were to make good on his threat to open the borders, allowing a new wave of refugees into Germany before elections here in the fall? Beer’s response echoing the official position of Chancellor Angela Merkel, that a European-wide solution is required, and that is indeed a topic high on the agenda addressed in ongoing EU discussions.

And What About NATO?

Last but surely not least for the German government is the issue of military cooperation. Again, in mid-May, Turkey refused permission for a delegation of parliamentarians from the Bundestag to make a routine visit to German troops stationed at the Incirlik base. The first time Ankara made such a move was in response to the German Bundestag’s recognition of the Armenian genocide last June; now the reason for the refusal was Germany’s having granted asylum to Turkish citizens, including military officers, persecuted for alleged Gülen ties.

Two opposition forces, the Green Party and the Left Party (Die Linke), called for Germany to pull out its troops in response; since “the German army is the army of the parliament,” it stated in its call, “and the parliament must control it at all times,” such a veto is unacceptable. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel had also said the Turkish refusal was “the limit of the tolerable,” and Defense Minister von der Leyen arranged a visit to Jordan to discuss with the king possible alternative bases in the Hashemite Kingdom. Gabriel went further, suggesting that a possible pullout should be considered also for troops stationed in Konya. As government spokesman Steffen Siebert stated, however, there are differences between the two situations; German soldiers at Incirlik are manning German Tornados for reconnaissance flights over Syria and Iraq, whereas in Konya it is a NATO base for AWACs, and this would involve a NATO decision. It is considered unlikely for NATO to take any such steps considering Turkey is its second largest members.

Topics: EU, Europe, Germany, Turkey

As Beer pointed out at the round table debate, even redeploying German troops to Jordan would not solve the problem, which goes much deeper. How can one accept the move by one NATO member to deny access to troops of a fellow NATO member? This, indeed, is the question: how far is Germany or NATO going to tolerate the arbitrary rulings of an Erdogan regime which believes that with the referendum it has received a mandate to dictate its will despite national sovereignty and international agreements?