The speed at which Germany’s “international safe zone plan” was thrown off the table was only matched by the speed at which it was proposed in the first place. While the proposal became passé almost as soon as it hit the headlines, it was useful for one thing: reflecting on the current state of political affairs in Germany and the relationship between Germany and Turkey.
To recap, the international safe zone proposal by Germany was brought forward by the Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on October 23. More well-known by her name’s initials, AKK, than her internationally unpronounceable name, Kramp-Karrenbauer now heads the Christian Democrats (CDU) and is regarded as a potential successor of Chancellor Angela Merkel. The proposal basically entailed a blue-helmet mission in northern Syria, meaning the deployment of United Nations peacekeeping forces on the ground, authorized by an international mandate. The plan’s gist was to resolve all problems in one go: fight the Islamic State and similar jihadist groups, protect the Kurds, abate and even resolve Turkey’s security fears, and fill the void left by the departure of the U.S. special forces. Kramp-Karrenbauer also took the risk of breaking away from Germany’s pacifism and reluctance to dispatch combat troops in international missions. She is among the new generation of politicians moving past that traditional disinclination that from the dark shadows surrounding Germany’s history.
For my part, I found it a welcome surprise that Germany took the “pains” to intervene and propose something—anything at all—to resolve the current quagmire erupting in northern Syria after Turkey’s “Peace Spring” military operation was launched. Aside from expressing disdain and concern, spurting criticism, or trying to engage through backdoor diplomatic channels, Germany put something on the table and proposed a plan in a transparent manner. I personally think the act of tangibly proposing plans and going forward in public, not acting behind closed doors, has its merits, and should be used as the main strategy in Turkey-Germany relations. Otherwise, negative perceptions on the part of the Turkish public will just continue growing, and Turkish politicians will capitalize on such perceptions, exacerbating the downward spiral of relations. MetroPOLL, one of the foremost polling companies in Turkey, found that 72% of the public in Turkey regard Germany as an “enemy.” This figure was just 47% back in 2016.
While the plan quickly expired, it still fulfilled a crucial mission: it acted as a mirror to reflect what is wrong with Germany’s current politics-and foreign relations.
Let’s first start with the relations part: Germany has had certain “moods” in its relations with Turkey in the recent years. In the aftermath of the failed coup in 2016, Germany perceived the new intellectual and financially higher-income émigrés from Turkey as “assets,” and furthermore tried to discern between Turkey’s politics and its people. As of 2019, Germany regards Turkey as a headache in general when it comes to both its politics and its people. Forget about positive reception of new immigrants from Turkey: it is now a hassle to pass through Germany’s borders for Turkish passport holders, even with valid Schengen visas issued by Germany itself or visa-free special green passports. As often done with headaches, the quickest solution is to pop a pill and go on with business as usual. Germany is doing exactly that in regards to dealing with Turkey now. There is neither the will nor the interest to probe deeper into why there are certain conditions that make Turkey a headache. Sadly, and most importantly, there is also no interest as to how these conditions may be ameliorated so that Turkey is no longer a “headache” on Germany’s behalf. Last but not least, if you regard something as a “headache,” then there is absolutely no way that your relationship with that “thing” will be fruitful.
The plan’s quick dismissal within Germany as “vaguely worded,” “unrealistic,” and “half-baked” indicates how personal political rows and confrontations tarnish the country’s ability to define its role as a key player on the world stage. Kramp-Karrenbauer was criticized for putting forward the proposal without even discussing it with the governing coalition’s junior partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), let alone Germany’s main allies. But the cherry on the cake came from Foreign Minister Heiko Maas when he was visiting Ankara on October 26. Maas unabashedly led the way for Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to publicly crush Kramp-Karrenbauer’s plan when he himself said, “We are told everywhere that this is not a realistic proposal.” This was Maas’ way of describing the plan as unrealistic and asserting the status of his party, SPD, as the director of foreign policy, and his own role as the top diplomat of Germany. Maas also dismissed in-depth discussion of the situation in Syria, as he argued that he had no time to discuss “things of a theoretical character, because the people of Syria lack the time for theoretical debates.” Çavuşoğlu, a seasoned politician and jack of all trades, seized the opportunity to gallantly bash AKK’s plan as “unrealistic.” The day after Maas’ Ankara visit, on October 27, Chancellor Merkel felt the need to call President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and clarify Germany’s international safe zone plan, although her office stated that the call was to discuss the situation in Syria in general.
Meanwhile, not mincing his words, the Economy Ministry’s senior official Thomas Bareiss replied critically to Maas in his statement to business daily Handelsblatt, saying what Foreign Minister Maas did “not only contravenes diplomatic custom, it is also tactless and against German interests.”
Maas may have emulated the habits of Turkish politicians by utilizing foreign policy issues to gain leverage in domestic politics. The Social Democrats, governing with CDU/CSU since 2018, will be reviewing whether to stay in coalition next month. If they leave, there will most likely be early elections. According to a Deutschlandtrend opinion poll for the German broadcaster ARD, AKK now features as the ninth most popular politician in Germany, whereas Maas comes in second and Merkel first. AKK could not launch the plan for Germany’s international safe zone, but if she had been able to figure out a better way to be a “problem solver” in the quagmire of Syria, it certainly would have helped her domestic credentials as well.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak several European leaders have called launching an all-encompassing Marshall Plan-style public investment program to mitigate the economic impact. Turkey was a part of the Marshall Plan as it was automatically considered to be a part of Europe and the Western bloc back in 1951. How about now?
Hungary’s new “COVID-19 State of Emergency Law” allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely. he COVID-19 crisis may pass, but the dagger in the back is there to stay. And Hungary’s new legislative turn may prove to be the real “epidemic”: draconian systemic changes going viral.
Schengen is one casualty of COVID-19, but not the only one. The European Stability Pact, which requires member states to uphold a less than three percent budget deficit is another casualty. The EU had to lift the budget cap on March 20, guarded by the European Stability Pact.
Is the first casualty of the coronavirus the European Union itself? There are now more confirmed cases of coronavirus globally than there are in China, and Europe has been defined as the “epicenter of epidemic crisis” by the World Health Organization. And when it comes to facing the crisis, it’s almost as though the European Union does not exist as an institution.
Money is an important part of the issue for Ankara; but so is its safe zone plan. The polls indicated that the public supported the military incursion into Northern Syria first and foremost because they believed that a safe zone for Syrian refugees to return may be created. As Turkey’s public opinion sours vehemently on the refugee issue, the “promise of sending back the Syrian refugees” is political gold in terms of returns in political capital.
This is our darkest hour with Europe and the European Union. And I do not think that either the public in Turkey or Turkish politicians in general are aware of the grimness of the situation. Turkey’s public psyche has gone berserk with all sorts of negative emotions, and are unable to recognize that relations with Europe are completely wrecked beyond repair.
While Ankara may not receive the solid backing from NATO that Turkey is seeking against Russia now, dialogue channels with NATO are stronger compared to other international institutions — for example, the European Union. Despite all the conflicts of interest and tensions that Turkey and European states, as well as Ankara and Washington, have endured, their links with NATO are still intact.
In Turkey’s case, beyond Ankara and Erdoğan’s foreign policy line, perceptions are changing, and the West is clearly not winning when it comes to public perception. A recent survey by MetroPOLL showed that Russia is the “most trusted country” in Turkey, followed by Japan, China, and Hungary, respectively. While love of Japan and Hungary extend back to Ottoman times and might be due to imagined cultural affinities, trust in Russia and China are novel developments in Turkey.
Várhelyi’s statement on a “revised methodology” for EU enlargement and the official document for this new approach do not even refer to Turkey. Or, in other words, as far as enlargement is concerned, Turkey is not remotely on the mind of the EU.
Since March 2018, obtaining a visa through the Ankara Agreement got increasingly harder. The UK Home Office made an unexpected announcement at midnight on March 16, 2018; declaring that new applications will not be accepted until further notice.Real impact of Brexit over Turkey may be on trade front though: Britain has signed 18 free trade agreements with 55 countries so far.
2020 seems already to be ridden with unexpected crises erupting all around the world: Turkey had to face one of its worst fears, an earthquake. The warmest responses came from the EU countries with which Turkey has the coldest relations: France, and at a far warmer level, Greece.
One of the most tangible outcomes of the Berlin Conference turned out to be worsening Greek and Turkey relations. Already the Eastern Mediterranean question was the elephant in the room in relations between two countries; now the state of crisis has become permanent and “East Med” issue is right in middle of everything. Troubles with Greece will lead to worsening of already dreadful relations between Turkey and the European Union institutions, too.
U.S.-Greece relations are on track despite Trump’s reluctance to condemn Ankara. Perhaps military sales compensate for that by producing tangible results that reduce Greece’s anxieties concerning Turkey.
Clear goal of the EU and the major European states is saving the nuclear deal. As Trump was threathening to bomb 52 sites in Iran in allusion to the same number of diplomats taken the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran, the EU’s new foreign policy chief Josep Borrell invited Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Brusells. However, at the moment, there seems to be no clear European vision ahead or roadmap.
If I had one way to describe this year, it would be “bittersweet. While I am more optimistic about Europe in general, I am less optimistic about Turkey and Greece as we slowly step into 2020.
Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics? Looking at Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava, Prague and Istanbul’s determined struggle for “freedom”; it looks like we will comeback to this question more and more in 2020-and beyond.
Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made a formal comeback on Dec. 13 with the new party he founded, the “Future Party.” Former Finance Minister Ali Babacan’s new party is counting down the days to its launch and is due to take off either by the end of December or in the early days of January. There is also a surprise movement making its debut in Turkey: the pan-European movement DiEM25-Democracy in Europe Movement 2025.
While Turkey’s public clearly stands by the protection of human rights, they do not actively engage in any tangible act to actually support human rights organizations. They are neither willing to donate nor take part in advocacy campaigns.
At first glance, Turkey may seem to be missing the “climate activism” heyday that’s on-going in Europe. Afterall, it is not the best of the times for any sort of grassroots activism in Turkey. But if you probe deeper, you will come across a diligent and robust climate activist movement budding all over the country.
According to Sept. 2019 data, almost 90% of the public believes that violence against women has increased in recent times. And the public holds the judiciary and the political sphere culpable for increasing violence against women. Around 65% believe that the judiciary is not working effectively when it comes to cases violence against women, and 66% think that politicians are not doing enough to prevent such cases.
As Budapest’s new mayor (and also a political scientist by profession) Karácsony pointed out, maybe the cities are winning at the expense of the populist center specifically because “the correct answer is to strengthen representative democracy, complement this with the institutions which are part of the participative democracy and involve people more in decision-making.”
At the end of the day, the gist of the Erdoğan-Orbán camaraderie is displaying an image of strength to the EU. Their policies regarding Europe, popular domestically, aim to push their own agenda at the expense of Brussels.
All eyes were on Ankara’s relations with Washington after Turkey launched its “Operation Peace Spring,” and speculation abounded that the once-allies had parted ways for good. But in fact it is Turkey’s relations with the EU and Europe that took the real and probably most lasting blow.