Merkel has spent a lot of her summer seeking to defuse a crisis that has involved invocations of the Holocaust, limitations on German politicians visiting their nation’s troops in Turkey and mounting accusations of dictatorial conduct by Erdoğan.
The root of the tension is not the refugee crisis. Nor is it the recent failed coupagainst Erdoğan. The Turkish leader’s ire was stirred by a contentious historical question: Should the killing of Armenians under Ottoman rule during World War I be characterized as genocide?
Most Western historians believe the answer is ‘yes,’ a reading that Turkish nationalists, led by a president worried about the consequences of dispelling national myths, dispute.
Ankara accused Germany and other European countries of not showing enough solidarity with the Turkish president.
After years of debate in Germany over the issue, the Bundestag decided in June to pass a resolution declaring the killings a genocide, a fraught move for the country responsible for the Holocaust.
Erdoğan responded with anger, saying Germany was “the last country” to be making such determinations, pointing not just to Germany’s conduct during World War II but to the country’s slaughter of Africans in present-day Namibia in the early 20th century.
Berlin largely ignored those remarks, but Erdoğan’s attacks on German MPs of Turkish descent who had endorsed the resolution were met with shock. The politicians weren’t real Turks and should submit to blood tests to prove their heritage, the president said. The MPs, including Green leader Cem Özdemir, received death threats, prompting Germany’s foreign office to recommend they avoid visiting Turkey.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan | Jesco Denzel/Bundesregierung via Getty Images
The diplomatic crisis reached a fever pitch after Ankara’s refusal to allow German MPs to visit their troops in Turkey. More than 200 Luftwaffe and other military personnel are stationed at the Incirlik airbase to conduct reconnaissance missions in the fight against the Islamic State.
The ban, which the Turkish government made clear was a direct consequence of the Bundestag’s Armenia genocide resolution, sparked a furor in Berlin and demands that Germany recall its forces.
For a NATO member to deny the democratic representatives of an ally under the treaty access to their own troops was unprecedented.
The coup attempt against Erdoğan ratcheted tensions up even higher. Ankara accused Germany and other European countries of not showing enough solidarity with the Turkish president.
His growing authoritarianism had already clouded most Germans’ views of Turkey. In a German public television poll released in early June, more than 90 percent said they didn’t consider Ankara to be a trustworthy partner. Erdoğan’s decision to file criminal charges against a German comedian for insulting him earlier in the year cemented the impression in Germany that Erdoğan had become a dictator.
Amid the growing distrust, Merkel has been at pains to keep the relationship from breaking down altogether. She allowed the criminal case against the comedian, Jan Böhmermann, to proceed. And on the day of the Armenia vote, she was noticeably absent from the Bundestag, as were her vice chancellor and foreign minister.
For Erdoğan, her efforts were not enough. Over the summer, Turkish officials refused to receive Germany’s ambassador in Ankara, effectively freezing the relationship. At the NATO summit in Warsaw in July, Merkel made a personal plea to Erdoğan to lift the ban on German MPs, only to be rebuffed.
The problem for Germany is that time is running short to repair the relationship. German troop deployments require parliamentary approval and are limited in time. The Incirlik mission is due to expire in December and Merkel wants the Bundestag to renew it this fall. If MPs aren’t allowed onto the base, Germany would have no choice but to leave.
Beyond the military implications — Germany would be unable to meet its obligations as part of the anti-ISIL coalition — the diplomatic consequences would be enormous. Berlin and Ankara would be allies in name only. The EU’s refugee deal, which Merkel personally negotiated, would be left hanging by a thread.
“The EU-Turkey deal is in both our interest” — Angela Merkel
Over the past several weeks, German and European officials have worked feverishly behind the scenes to find a way out of the morass.
Despite Turkey’s persistent complaints about what they consider to be half-hearted support for Erdoğan, Ankara was also keen to move beyond the dispute, officials said.
The main reason is that Turkey would have just as much, if not more, to lose from a collapse in ties. With its economy battered and the outlook gloomy, Ankara needs the billions in aid the EU has promised to help with the cost of managing the nearly three million Syrian refugees in the country.
“The EU-Turkey deal is in both our interest,” Merkel said in a speech to the Bundestag on Wednesday, as she defended the cooperation with Ankara.
Withdrawing from the refugee deal wouldn’t lift the burden from Turkey. What drove the exodus last year was the promise of reaching northern Europe.