Germany and Turkey are highly interdependent. Ankara relies on trade and funding from Germany while Berlin needs Turkey’s cooperation on the refugee crisis. Ongoing diplomatic spats and political clashes between Ankara and Berlin mask the depth of this mutual dependency. Both the German and Turkish leadership have strong incentives to put differences aside, make concessions and continue working together closely.
- On the surface, Germany and Turkey have diverging goals and a troubled relationship.
- Germany and Turkey’s different economic structures and levels of development led to the emergence of strong economic ties. Turkey is currently very economically dependent on Germany.
- Germany relies heavily on Turkey to relieve domestic political pressures and help prevent further deterioration of EU cohesion.
- Distrust of Russia has the potential to bring Germany and Turkey closer together.
Over the past few months, it has become common to hear Turkish and German politicians publicly exchange harsh words and accusations. Turkey has recalled its ambassador from Berlin, German members of parliament have called for an investigation into alleged Turkish spying, and leaders from both sides have threatened to renege on previous agreements. And yet the German-Turkish relationship remains strong.
A Seemingly Troubled Relationship
On the surface, Germany and Turkey have diverging goals and a troubled relationship. The countries’ aims differ when it comes to the Turkish community in Germany, relations with the Kurds and ties with Armenia. The recent coup in Turkey and the ongoing fight against the Islamic State (IS) have heightened tensions around some of these issues.
Berlin and Ankara have clashed regarding the Turkish government’s relationship with Germany’s Turkish community. There are about 3 million people of Turkish descent living in Germany, and the Turkish government has worked hard to maintain influence in this community, most notably through the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DİTİB). DİTİB was founded by Turkish authorities in 1984 and today acts as an umbrella organization representing 900 mosques across Germany. DİTİB administers a program in which Turkish imams are sent to work in Germany for five-year rotations. For the German authorities, DİTİB’s work represents a Turkish government effort to politically influence communities in Germany.
These concerns are far from new, but the aftermath of the attempted coup in Turkey has heightened German worries that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is attempting to more aggressively become involved in the Turkish community’s matters in Germany. According to Der Spiegel, Turkey formally requested that Berlin approve 40 searches and three extraditions connected to supporters of Fethullah Gülen.
At the same time, however, a report in Germany’s Die Welt newspaper cited an unnamed security expert as saying that Turkish intelligence has hundreds of agents active in Germany and a network of 6,000 informants “menacing” the Turkish community. In a sign that the German government is becoming more alarmed at unsanctioned Turkish government activities inside Germany’s borders, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Aug. 23, “We expect people with Turkish origins living in Germany for a long time to develop loyalty towards our country to a high degree.”
German and Turkish interests have also diverged recently on issues regarding Armenia and the Kurds. In June, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Berlin after German members of parliament voted to recognize the Armenian genocide. The episode led to Turkish authorities denying permission for a German parliamentary delegation to visit German troops stationed at İncirlik air base. Moreover, the German government began supplying Kurdish forces with weapons in 2014 and in 2016 opened two military training centers near Erbil for the Kurdish peshmerga. For Germany, supporting the Kurds is an indirect way to contribute to the fight against IS. For Ankara, however, cooperation with Kurdish forces is anathema.
While notable in the short term, these recent tensions surrounding the Turkish community in Germany, Gülen, Armenia and the Kurds do not define the true nature of Germany’s relationship with Turkey. These are not the main considerations in Berlin and Ankara when it comes to the future of German-Turkish relations. Instead, several key economic, political and strategic factors drive their decision-making.
Turkey’s Economic Dependency on Germany
Berlin and Ankara’s frequent, highly publicized disagreements mask a very close economic relationship. Over the past decades, Germany and Turkey’s different economic structures and levels of development have led to the emergence of strong economic ties, and Turkey is heavily dependent on Germany economically.
West Germany’s economy was growing in the 1960s but lacked a young, cheap workforce to staff its factories. Meanwhile, to the south, Turkey was poor and underdeveloped, with a large youth population of mostly uneducated and unskilled laborers. Turkey thus held the key to alleviating Germany’s labor shortage. In 1961, the German and Turkish governments signed a treaty that facilitated the movement of Turkish guest workers to Germany to help fulfill the demand for cheap labor.
As Turkey’s economy developed and Germany’s need for unskilled laborers declined, the countries’ economic relationship changed, but the nations still remained strongly linked. Whereas in the past Turkey had exported cheap labor and textiles to Germany, the country has now moved up the value chain and also exports a large volume of machinery, machine parts and car parts for Germany’s vast manufacturing and industrial sectors. Germany is the number one export destination for Turkish goods, comprising 9.3 percent of Turkish exports in 2015, according to U.N. Comtrade data. Three out of four German companies either buy parts in Turkey or own subsidiaries in Turkey. According to a study by Ernst & Young, 16.2 percent of Turkey’s foreign direct investment (FDI) projects came from Germany between 2007 and 2012, second only to FDI projects from the U.S.
Nevertheless, Turkey depends far more on Germany economically than Germany depends on Turkey. From Germany’s perspective, the Turkish market is large, but it is not a major destination for German exports; merely 1.9 percent of Germany’s exports went to Turkey in 2015. The German economy is very integrated into the eurozone and has strong ties to the U.S. and U.K. as well as to economies like China. German companies have regarded Turkey as a cheap and attractive economy for building factories and purchasing machinery and parts, but Turkey competes with countries in regions like Central Europe and East Asia for the attention of German firms. German industry and consumers have vast choices when it comes to investing and importing goods.
However, Turkey has few alternatives to Germany. World Bank data show that exports accounted for 28 percent of Turkey’s GDP in 2015. Other than Germany, there are currently no major economies that demand Turkey’s machinery and car parts. Moreover, while much has been made of Turkey’s dependency on Russian tourism, in reality, Germany is Turkey’s largest source of tourists. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, 15 percent of visitors to Turkey in 2015 came from Germany. A study by The World Travel and Tourism Council found that the direct, indirect and induced impact of travel and tourism generated about 12 percent of Turkey’s GDP in 2014.
Turkey’s growing economic woes increase the importance of trade and funding from Germany. Turkey’s economy is slowing down: in 2011, the GDP growth rate reached 8.77 percent. Over the following three years, the annual growth rate hovered between about 2.1 and 4.2 percent, according to the World Bank. At the same time, the rate of non-performing loans is now on the rise, more companies are heading toward bankruptcy, and formal unemployment in May – the latest data available – rose to 9.4 percent. This domestic economic slowdown means that Turkey is more vulnerable to any changes in its economic relationships abroad, especially with Germany.
Migration Crisis: Germany’s Dependency on Turkey
Since the onset of the migration crisis, Germany has come to rely heavily on Turkey to relieve domestic political pressures on the government in Berlin and help prevent the further deterioration of EU cohesion.
Turkey has become the gatekeeper to Europe. Nearly 1.1 million total migrants arrived in Germany in 2015 – five times more than the previous year. The refugee crisis is closely tied to the Syrian civil war and the activities of IS in Syria and Iraq. These refugees’ decision-making is closely related to fighting on the ground, perception of the future of Syria and Iraq, and prospects for the defeat of IS. According to Eurostat, a third of formal first-time asylum seekers in the EU in 2015 came from Syria, and almost half of these Syrians had registered in Germany. After Syrians and Afghans, Iraqis made up the third-largest group of asylum-seekers in the EU. Many refugees either originally fled to Turkey and then decided to seek a future in Europe instead or travelled through Turkey and, with the help of traffickers, crossed from Turkey to Greece.
Turkey plays a significant role in controlling the flow of migrants to Europe, and Ankara signed an agreement with the European Union in March regarding this flow. Under the terms of the deal, the EU and Turkey agreed to the following key points:
- All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands will be returned to Turkey.
- For every Syrian returned to Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey.
- The EU will expedite the disbursement of the 3 billion euros initially allocated and will also mobilize an additional 3 billion euros through the end of 2018.
- Fulfillment of the visa liberalization roadmap will be accelerated with a view to lifting the visa requirements for Turkish citizens by the end of June 2016 at the latest, provided that all benchmarks have been met. Preparations for Turkey’s EU membership would also be accelerated.
This agreement made Germany highly dependent on Turkey and contributed to a significant reduction in the flow of refugees from Turkey to Europe. Before the deal, about 1,000 refugees arrived in Greece each day. By July, the rate had dropped to about 60 per day. Meanwhile, Greece has begun returning refugees to Turkey, albeit at a very slow pace.
For the German government, the reduction in the flow of refugees from Turkey is a political necessity. While Merkel initially showed great openness toward refugees arriving in Germany, the German government’s approval rating has suffered greatly over the past months. This is largely due to dissatisfaction over the government’s handling of the refugee crisis and security challenges. There has also been a surge in support for the nationalist Alternative for Germany party.
The German government is willing to help integrate those refugees already in Germany and has accepted some new arrivals under various redistribution schemes. However, with elections coming up in 2017, Berlin cannot afford to see another large-scale migration wave through Turkey and Greece. Furthermore, Germany is desperately working to avoid further fragmentation of the EU. The bloc’s members already diverge greatly in their approach to refugees, and an intensification of the crisis could pull EU members further apart.
Nevertheless, the status of the EU’s deal with Turkey is currently in flux. Turkey has yet to meet the EU’s requirements to qualify for visa liberalization. Both sides knew when they signed the agreement that some of its provisions are far from realistic, especially in the near term. The sides likely agreed to the terms regardless of this reality for political reasons. Erdoğan wanted to show ordinary Turks that they would benefit from the deal and that he is advocating on their behalf to the Europeans. The EU’s negotiators, in turn, were fully aware that the 72 preconditions laid out for Turkey to qualify for visa-free travel would require much bureaucratic haggling, allowing Brussels to stall on a concession many EU policymakers deem both politically risky in their home countries and a security challenge. One particularly difficult EU-mandated requirement – that Turkey amend its counterterrorism legislation – was further complicated by the failed coup attempt and ensuing crackdown.
Germany and many other EU states have a strong incentive to adhere to the terms of the deal and provide Turkey with some concessions. Turkey, with its struggling economy and large refugee population, is in dire need of the billions of euros that come with the agreement. But Ankara is also aware that Europe relies on Turkey to stem the tide of the migration crisis and is thus aware of its strong position. Ankara is therefore using the agreement – and threats of breaking it off – in an attempt to achieve its goals when it comes to issues like Gülenists in Europe and influence over Turkish communities, as well as in deflecting European criticism of Erdoğan’s post-coup crackdown.
Turkish and German Strategic Considerations
Beyond immediate deals and concessions, both Ankara and Berlin are working to broaden strategic goals. One of Turkey’s chief aims is to be able to pursue goals unilaterally. Turkey may be a NATO member, and it may be seeking a stronger relationship with Russia, but it does not ultimately want to rely on either side. Ankara is pushing for progress on EU membership, but it is not actually planning on becoming a member in the near future. Turkey is working to become more independent and would not join blocs (like the EU) that would undermine Ankara’s ability to make its own decisions. Turkish leaders are also aware that EU expansion is informally on hold. Instead, the accession process is mostly an attempt by Ankara to receive economic concessions from Europe.
Turkey is busy establishing independence of action in foreign policy, defending its homeland from threats, and ensuring internal unity and cohesion. Ankara sees relations with Germany from the perspective of achieving these three aims. Germany can help Ankara maintain internal stability by providing a large exports market and funding for the Turkish economy. Relationships with the Turkish community abroad aid the Turkish authorities in managing threats to the homeland and internal unity. At the same time, maintaining strong relations with Germany and the U.S. while also pursuing ties with Russia helps Ankara withstand pressures from all sides and construct an independent position.
Germany’s primary goal at the moment is safeguarding the unity of the eurozone and EU while maintaining a strong leadership role in both blocs. Turkey is instrumental in achieving this aim. The migration crisis has deepened divisions within the bloc, highlighted the weaknesses of EU institutions, empowered nationalist and Euroskeptic political parties across Europe, and weakened Germany’s position of leadership. The EU’s deal with Turkey, coupled with the closing of the Balkan route, helped relieve pressure on European governments. With the civil war in Syria still raging and no end in sight, Berlin deeply fears the political implications of another large wave of migrants flowing toward Europe. Despite the rhetoric of German policymakers, the government in Berlin is therefore open to working closely with Ankara, regardless of concerns regarding the Erdoğan government.
But German-Turkish relations also revolve around the countries’ strategies when it comes to two key countries: the U.S. and Russia. Turkey and Germany are both NATO members, but Ankara’s relationship with the military alliance is fraught and related directly to its evolving ties with Washington. Turkey needs the U.S., but it is also working to reduce its dependency on Washington and boost its negotiating position regarding key issues like Syria and the Kurds. Turkey sees Germany as part of a U.S.-led Western alliance, and thus Ankara’s dealings with Washington also affect its approach to Berlin. Germany, similarly, takes NATO interests – and the U.S. position – into account when it comes to Turkey.
At the same time, Russia is a key factor in shaping the relationship between Germany and Turkey. While both Berlin and Ankara at times work to create friendly relations with Moscow, Germany and Turkey fear the expansion of Russian influence. Turkey is concerned about Russian intentions in the Black Sea region while Germany worries about Moscow’s activities in Eastern Europe, and especially in EU member countries like the Baltic states. Distrust of Russia has the potential to bring Germany and Turkey closer together, and Moscow thus has an incentive to keep Turkey alienated from Germany.
Germany and Turkey may have a troubled relationship on the surface, but their strategic, political and economic imperatives all indicate that Berlin and Ankara need each other. The two sides may continue clashing on some policy issues, but when it comes to significant questions, like the EU-Turkey migration deal, Berlin and Ankara have strong incentives to work together. Germany and Turkey, despite appearances, are allies with converging interests and are likely to pursue some of their common aims together.