Germany and Turkey seek to rescue relations from 'current spiral'

Turkish foreign minister visits German counterpart to resolve disputes that broke out after 2016 coup attempt

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel talk in Goslar, Germany, January 6, 2018. REUTERS/Sven Pfoertner/POOL
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The foreign ministers of Turkey and Germany pledged on Saturday to mend the soured ties between their two countries in what is seen in Germany as a Turkish charm offensive aimed at boosting economic growth.

Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Sigmar Gabriel for talks in the latter’s home town of Goslar in central Germany, where they told reporters it was time for a restart following a host of disputes including a row over Ankara’s crackdown in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt.

The foreign ministers were at pains to sound conciliatory during the meeting, which included a tour of an 11th-century imperial palace, lunch and a walk through the streets of the picturesque town.

“We’ve both made it our business to do everything we can to overcome the difficulties there have been in German-Turkish relations and to find more common ground in the future by remembering everything that binds us together,” Mr Gabriel told a joint briefing with Mr Cavusoglu.

Mr Cavusoglu wrote in a guest editorial published in several German newspapers that the two countries “must break the current spiral of crisis in our relationship”.

On Friday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Paris for the first time since the coup bid in another fence-mending exercise that was however marred by a spat with a French journalist who asked him about alleged Turkish arms shipments to Islamist rebels in Syria.

Relations between Turkey and Europe — and Germany in particular — hit a low point last year with the arrests of German citizens and fierce rhetoric from Mr Erdogan.

In March, he caused outrage in Germany by accusing chancellor Angela Merkel of employing “Nazi methods” after local German authorities refused to allow some Turkish politicians to address election rallies among Turkish immigrants.

Mr Cavusoglu said Germany had failed to grasp the impact the coup had had on Turkey.

“We think that the trauma that the coup attempt of July 15, 2016 caused in our population wasn’t fully understood there,” he wrote in the editorial. “We expect our German friends to better understand the situation that Turkey is currently confronted with.”

Turkey has accused Germany and other western countries of failing to condemn the coup quickly or forcefully enough and of sheltering people involved in it, as well as harbouring Kurdish and far-leftist militants.

Tensions had already been rising before the coup. There had been criticism in Germany over what is perceived as Mr Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian, undemocratic rule, and Turkey was enraged by a German parliamentary resolution declaring the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces a genocide.

Relations were not helped by a German comedian who hurled personal insults at Mr Erdogan, prompting the president to retaliate with legal action in Germany.

Germany is home to around 3 million people of Turkish origin, giving it the largest Turkish diaspora in Europe.

The two Nato allies depend on each other. Ms Merkel, beleaguered at home over her open-door refugee policy, was one of the main architects of an EU deal in March 2016 under which Turkey got some €6 billion (Dh26.5bn) in return for helping to end illegal migration of asylum-seekers from its territory to Europe.

Most of the refugees from Syria and other conflict-hit regions of the Middle East were trying to get to Germany and the numbers reaching the German borders have fallen sharply since 2015, partly thanks to that deal.

In addition, the EU is Turkey’s main trading partner by far, and within the bloc Germany is the biggest.

Mr Gabriel and Mr Cavusoglu acknowledged that differences remained, including on whether Turkey should be allowed to join the European Union, which Germany opposes.

Mr Cavusoglu said: “There is benefit in pushing our disagreements aside and continuing on our path. We should focus on issues that serve as win-win for our countries, like the customs union.”

Membership of the EU’s customs union is a major boon for trade because no customs duties are levied on goods travelling within it. Turkey and the EU have had a customs union on trade since 1996 but Germany has blocked talks to update it and widen it to include services and agricultural products.

One of the main disputes at present centres around the arrest last February of Deniz Yucel, a correspondent for German newspaper Die Welt who has both German and Turkish citizenship. He faces terrorism-related accusations.

But there are signs that he could be freed soon following the release last month of another German journalist, Mesale Tolu, and of German human rights activist Peter Frank Steudtner in October.

Mr  Gabriel said he had discussed difficult issues including Yucel's case with Mr Cavusoglu, but did not give details.

Commentators in Germany said the reconciliation under way was pure realpolitik by Turkey aimed at boosting European investment and trade to keep the economy buoyant ahead of general elections due next year.

"Erdogan may be focusing on de-escalation in foreign policy at the moment. At home he's continuing his authoritarian course unrelentingly," German magazine Der Spiegel wrote. "The German government should seek dialogue with Erdogan. But it shouldn't think it's talking to a democrat."