Erdogan Gets Something for Nothing in Germany

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Before Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s state visit to Germany last week, analysts — this one included — suggested his main priority would be to mollify Angela Merkel. Instead, Turkey’s leader used the occasion to demonstrate why he didn’t need to.

He didn’t get everything he wanted: There were no promises of visa-free access to the Europe Union for Turks, for instance, and the prospects for a more extensive customs union with the EU haven’t improved.

But the German chancellor, having accorded her guest full state honors, ensured that he went home with gifts of great symbolic and diplomatic value. They agreed that her economy minister, Peter Altmaier, will soon lead a large business delegation on a visit to Turkey; and that Merkel herself will travel to Istanbul for a conference on Syria’s future, hosted by Erdogan and featuring the presidents of France and Russia.

In return, Erdogan gave Merkel… not a lot. The president largely ignored his hosts’ concerns about the state of democracy and human rights in Turkey, and instead accused Germany of harboring spies and terrorists. He didn’t apologize for previously accusing Merkel of “Nazi measures.” If she expressed any criticisms of his economic policies, these weren’t made public, and Erdogan doesn’t seem to have promised any changes.

The outcome reflects an uncomfortable reality for Merkel: As much as Erdogan needs German support — all the more now that his relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump has soured — she plainly doesn’t have much leverage over him. Germany needs Turkey to honor its agreement with the EU to prevent refugees from Syria and points east from arriving in Europe unchecked.

Like other Western leaders, Merkel is also relying on Erdogan to hold the line in the Syrian province of Idlib, where Turkey and Russia have an agreement to maintain a buffer zone in order to prevent a slaughter of civilians by forces loyal to President Assad. These priorities override everything else; they also restrain Merkel from pressing for economic reforms, even though Germany is Turkey’s largest trading partner.

And so the chancellor could offer only the mildest reproach at their joint press conference on Friday. While invoking their shared strategic interest in good relations, she noted that the two leaders had profound differences about what make a free, democratic, and open society.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier went a bit further. At a banquet honoring Erdogan, he expressed concern about “Turkish journalists, trade unionists, lawyers, intellectuals and politicians who remain behind bars.”

Erdogan ignored the finger-wagging, and instead offered admonitions of his own. Germany, he complained, was harboring “thousands” of Kurdish separatists as well as members of the Gulen Movement, which he holds responsible for a failed coup against him in 2016. At the press conference, he suggested Merkel’s government extradite the journalist Can Dundar, whom he described as a spy.

Dundar was sentenced to a six-year jail term in Turkey for publishing stories about arms shipments to Syria. His name is on a list of citizens Erdogan’s government wants Germany to extradite to enhance “peace and security” in both countries, he said at the press conference. That’s another item on Erdogan’s wish list Merkel is unlikely to grant.

Nevertheless, the Turkish president got far more than he gave — and that, for him, makes for a successful visit.

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.

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