France’s recent change of heart on Turkey is not enough. For the EU to shift its attitude toward Turkey—and for Turkey to believe Europe is sincere about accession negotiations—Germany needs to change heart too.
That is not going to happen any time soon. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who last Sunday began a two-day official visit to Turkey, is not expected to change her hardline position until at least after September’s federal elections. Between now and then, Merkel cannot afford to alienate her conservative bloc.
With few exceptions, members of the governing Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union parties are opposed to Turkey’s EU membership. They haven’t blocked accession talks, but they never encouraged them, either. Instead, Merkel has offered Turkey a “privileged partnership.” In practice, this would mean Turkey enjoying all the benefits of the internal market. But Ankara would be denied the ultimate prize of EU membership : voting rights.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has never shown any willingness to consider Berlin’s offer. He argues that a country is either in the EU or outside it ; there can be no halfway house. But Germany’s conservatives do not want this large, secular Muslim country with a sizable—and thus costly—agricultural sector to have a veto.
Yet Germany’s position, supported by the Netherlands and Austria—and, until recently, France—shows a complete lack of strategy toward Turkey. This is difficult to understand, both geopolitically and domestically. Turkey is an important member of the NATO alliance. Its very location—sandwiched between Europe, the Caucasus, Iraq, and the Middle East—has made it highly vulnerable to regional tensions.
This was one reason for the ambitious regional policy embarked upon by Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu well before the Arab Spring of 2011. He advocated a “zero problems” policy with Turkey’s neighbors. But that policy collided with the reality of the Arab Spring. Most dramatically, Turkey has been unable to do anything about the appalling bloodshed in Syria.
During the early stages of the Syrian conflict, Erdoğan rankled NATO, the United States, and the EU by proposing a no-fly zone over Syria and supporting the Syrian opposition. Even within Turkey, these were unpopular demands. They meant that Erdoğan, who used to have very close ties with the Assad family, could not play any mediating role.
Now—with over 182,000 Syrian refugees taking shelter in Turkey, economies in the region plummeting, and NATO deploying German and Dutch Patriot missile batteries as a security guarantee to Turkey—Erdoğan has had to reappraise his foreign policy. Ankara needs NATO and the EU more than ever before.
The EU should seize this opportunity. That means Berlin should play a major role in anchoring Turkey to Europe. Merkel does not need to reverse her position in the middle of an election campaign. But she could discreetly agree to open more accession chapters or topics. And she could discreetly explain to other skeptical EU governments why it is in Europe’s interest to support a stable, democratic, and prosperous Turkey bordering the EU.
At the same time, Merkel could make another much-awaited gesture toward Turkey. She should push her conservative bloc to allow young Turks to retain their dual citizenship. Currently, they have to choose between Turkish and German citizenship as when they reach the age of 23. That law does absolutely nothing for integration. About 3 million of the 15 million people with a foreign background living in Germany have roots in Turkey. Some 1.7 million are Turkish nationals.
For German conservatives, citizenship is about loyalty to the state. But given globalization and the fact that EU citizens are already allowed dual nationality, that view makes little sense. Still, any flexibility over this issue may have to wait until after the September elections. Erdoğan must know that.
There are many other outstanding issues between Berlin and Ankara, especially the unwillingness of Germany and the EU to ban the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which Erdoğan finds impossible to accept.
Strategically, however, EU accession negotiations remain the most important motivation for encouraging political, social, and economic reforms in Turkey. Strategically too, the chaos in the region should push European governments and Turkey to recognize it is in both their interests to kick-start the accession talks and produce results. Merkel should know that the EU’s continuing prevarication over Turkey, as well as Turkey’s intransigence over aspects of the negotiations, is detrimental to both sides.
It would behove Berlin to discreetly take the lead.