Erdogan’s Berlin Goal: Mollify Merkel

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There will be full military honors for Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Berlin on Thursday as he begins his first state visit to Germany as Turkey’s president. But the welcome is likely to be drowned out by verbal fusillades from German politicians and protesters alike.

For Erdogan, used to warmer welcomes on his travels, this visit will be a test of reserve — not his strongest suit. It may help to remind himself of his main purpose: to repair his relationship with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Given the parlous state of Turkey’s relations with the U.S. — a handshake between Erdogan and President Donald Trump in New York this week did nothing to resolve tensions — he desperately needs better economic and political ties to Europe, and especially with Germany. Those ties frayed almost to breaking point last year after Turkey detained a German human-rights activist, Peter Steudtner.

Since then, Turkey has been embroiled in a financial crisis. The lira has plunged, and growth is poised to slow dramatically. Confidence that the government can fix its huge current-account deficit has been dented by some of Erdogan’s eccentric pronouncements about interest rates, and by his appointment of his son-in-law as finance minister. This month, the president appointed himself chairman of the country’s sovereign wealth fund.

Erdogan’s economic woes will not win him much sympathy in Germany, where authorities are anticipating angry demonstrations. In Berlin and Cologne — where Erdogan will inaugurate a mosque — tens of thousands are expected to join protest marches.

But what will likely rankle more with Erdogan is the open hostility of many of Germany’s political elite. Several lawmakers have declined invitations to a formal dinner on Friday hosted by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, citing Erdogan’s growing authoritarian tendencies and his jailing of German citizens.

Nor will there be much warmth for the Turkish president at the banquet. Attendees will not have forgotten Erdogan’s incendiary condemnations of German policies in recent years, in particular his use of the term Nazi when describing a 2017 decision by German municipal authorities to cancel rallies by two of his cabinet ministers.

In the lead-up to his visit, Erdogan sounded more conciliatory, saying he is keen to turn back the clock. “Our priority agenda on my visit to Germany will be completely leaving behind the period experienced in recent years in our political relations,” he said at a press conference. Turkish authorities have released Steudtner, as well as a German journalist.

Merkel, too, seems open to a reset in relations. It is significant that she and Steinmeier have chosen to give Erdogan full state honors, rather than accord the trip the lower-profile status of a ‘working visit,’ as recommended by some members of parliament. She is mindful of the long-standing economic relations between the countries, Germany’s large ethnic-Turkish population, and the need to work with Erdogan to stanch the flow of Syrian refugees into Europe.

But Erdogan mustn’t read too much into Merkel’s gesture. “She is signaling that she is willing to start talking, but the risk is that [Erdogan] will see this as some kind of victory,” says Marc Pierini, a former French diplomat and EU ambassador to Turkey, now a scholar at Carnegie Europe. “This should not be mistaken for normalization: It is an initial investment toward normalization.”

Merkel will likely take a firm line in their discussions. Her coalition partners have said she shouldn’t miss any opportunity to discuss “critical issues” between Germany and Turkey, according to a statement by Juergen Hardt, a spokesman for the Christian Democratic and Christian Social Union parliamentary group. Those issues range from the fate of the remaining German nationals still detained in Turkey, to the state of the country’s democratic institutions, and human rights.

Erdogan has tended to bristle whenever these issues have been raised. But his country’s best interests would better be served by a show of presidential humility.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.