Arrests of German citizens prompt downgrading of German-Turkish relations

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At least since the July 2016 coup attempt, German-Turkish relations have taken a severe hit.

Recurring bones of contention have included the German army’s NATO presence at the Turkish Incirlik air base. German troops, who are part of the anti-IS coalition, are now being transferred to Jordan after a series of diplomatic rows over visits of German parliamentarians to the base.

Conversely, the visits of Turkish politicians – particularly in the run-up to the country’s controversial constitutional referendum in April 2016 – have unsettled the German political elite.

Arrests of German citizens in Turkey

Yet the perhaps most divisive issue has been the arrests of German citizens in Turkey, caught up in the post-coup repression. As of May 31, 2017, 44 Germans were held in Turkish detention. Many of them were dual citizens of Germany and Turkey, meaning that they had no legal claim to be supported by the German Embassy.1) https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/deutsche-in-tuerkei-inhaftiert-101.html

In 2017, there have been a number of high profile arrests that have made particular headlines: Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel, correspondent of the Die Welt newspaper, was arrested in February; German journalist and translator Meşale Tolu, in April. And on July 5, human rights activist Peter Steudtner was arrested in Istanbul.2) http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/tuerkei-deutscher-menschenrechtler-peter-steudtner-muss-in-haft-a-1158364.html

Swift changes to the German-Turkish relationship

The case of Steudtner has led to a major shift in German-Turkish relations. After having merely expressed ‘deep concern’ at developments in Turkey before, this time Berlin was surprisingly swift to react.

The German Foreign Office tightened its travel alerts for visitors to Turkey; a move that could potentially harm Turkey’s tourism-dependent economy. Further measures include the potential freezing of trade credit insurance offered to German companies exporting to Turkey. What is more, all German arms exports to Turkey – on paper an important NATO ally – are also halted.3) https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/tuerkei-deutschland-121.html

Domestic ramifications

In the case of Germany, troubles in external relations with Turkey of course risk causing major domestic repercussions, thanks to Germany’s roughly three million inhabitants of Turkish descent. In the past months, the political loyalty of Germans with a Turkish background has come repeatedly into focus, particularly in the context of the Turkish constitutional referendum.

German Turks have reacted with dismay to the renewed bout of antagonism. They perceive themselves to be the first victims of the diplomatic tensions. Many also asserted that they did not feel represented by any German political party or force in this context.4) http://dtj-online.de/deutsch-tuerken-die-leidtragenden-der-deutsch-tuerkischen-konflikte-86452

Letter to German Turks

Against this backdrop, the German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel addressed German Turks in a letter published in the country’s leading tabloid, Bild. Gabriel stressed that the German government “has always worked for good relations with Turkey, because we know that a good relationship between Germany and Turkey is important to you.”

Recent arrests were forcing the government to act in order to protect its citizens, Gabriel asserted. Yet he stressed that this should not be seen as an assault on German Turks:

“Nothing of this is directed against the people living in Turkey and our fellow citizens with Turkish roots in Germany. For no matter how difficult political relations between Germany and Turkey are – this much remains obvious to us: you […] belong to us – whether with or without a German passport.”5) http://www.bild.de/politik/inland/sigmar-gabriel/liebe-tuerkische-mitbuerger-52625202.bild.html

An attempt at inclusivity

Gabriel’s statement was striking in the clarity of its commitment to inclusiveness. For months, media discourses had been strongly marked by an implicit perception that German Turks were quintessentially ‘other’, and that ‘they’ did precisely not belong to ‘us’.

Overall, the Foreign Minister’s intervention was well-received among the general public.6) http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-07/deutsch-tuerkei-gabriel-erdogan-deutschtuerken-beziehungen Some pointed out, however, that it was left to the Foreign Minister to write this letter – a fact that seemed to point to the ways in which men and women of Turkish descent are still considered ‘foreign’ in Germany today.7) http://www.taz.de/!5428909/

Nevertheless, the letter appeared to spark a kind of bandwagoning effect, as other politicians also called for a measured approach towards Turkey and Turkish citizens. Leading confidant of Angela Merkel and Head of the Chancellery Peter Altmaier (CDU) stressed that Turkey remained “one of the most democratic countries” in the Middle East. “And by that”, he added, “I don’t mean Mr. Erdogan but rather the country and Turkish society as a whole.”8) http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/konflikt-berlin-ankara-peter-altmaier-warnt-vor-pauschalen-verurteilungen-der-tuerkei/20095232.html

Increased polarisation

The impact of Gabriel’s statement remains to be seen. By now, German Turks are exposed to fundamentally opposing narratives of the events of the recent months and years. While the overwhelming majority of German and European news outlets continue to focus on Turkey’s descent into repression, the Turkish viewpoint is still dominated by a sense of persecution and a martyrology called forth by last year’s coup attempt.

Against the backdrop of these competing narratives and visions, the decision where to ‘belong’ is becoming a more and more categorical question facing many German Turks, pitting a group of ‘us’ (however defined) against an inimical ‘them’.

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