Turkey and Germany Fall Out Again

The latest outburst reminds Germany that it needs a real solution to the migration crisis.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan likened the German government to Nazis on March 5, as relations between the two countries reached a new low.

The argument comes as Turkey prepares to hold a referendum on April 16 that would change the constitution and concentrate more power in the presidency. Around 3 million Turks live in Germany, and well over 1 million are eligible to vote in Turkish elections. This effectively makes Germany the fourth-largest electoral district for Turkish elections and an important part of any election campaign.

Relations between the two have been spiraling downward for some time. In February, Turkish police held Deniz Yücel, a German-Turkish journalist and correspondent for Die Welt newspaper, for two weeks, before finally arresting and formally charging him. The incident led to outrage in Germany.

Two German local authorities then canceled rallies led by Turkish ministers who were campaigning for a “Yes” vote in the constitutional referendum. One cited concerns about “parking space,” and the other blamed a double booking. To many, it looked suspiciously like retaliation.

This is what led to Erdoğan’s outburst. “Germany, you have no notion of democracy,” he said. “Your practices are not different from the Nazis of the past.”

The Telegraph reported Erdoğan saying, “I’ll come tomorrow if I want to, and if you do not let me in, or try to stop me speaking, I’ll start an insurrection.”

Other nations are closing ranks around Germany. Austria has called for a European Union-wide ban on campaigning by all Turkish politicians. But Germany itself has been remarkably restrained. A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there is “absolutely no justification” for Erdoğan’s remarks and followed up by saying, “[L]et us remember the special meaning of our close relationship and let cool heads prevail.”

Why such a mild response to such provocative words? Turkey is at the center of Merkel’s solution to the migrant crisis.

Over the course of 2016, the migrant crisis was much more manageable than the chaos of 2015. That change came because of two key reasons: Austria worked with the Balkan states to prevent immigrants from migrating north out of Greece, and Turkey agreed to close the door on Syrian migrants trying to travel into Europe.

If relations between Germany and Turkey unravel, migrants could flood back into Europe at 2015 levels. With German elections scheduled for September 24, a fresh outbreak of the migrant crisis would be politically disastrous for Merkel. She has no choice but to play nice—for now. “She is paralyzed by concerns that Erdoğan could put an end to the refugee deal—a threat he has repeatedly issued,” Spiegel Online said on March 6.

“It’s time to come up with a European solution that decreases our dependence on Turkey. … It’s time to develop alternatives—by promoting a European refugee policy that does not outsource the protection of EU borders to Turkey but instead sees the EU taking on that responsibility,” it wrote. “It’s high time for Europe to free itself from Erdoğan’s shackles.”

Should relations between Turkey and Germany fall apart over the summer, the fallout could be huge, with another 1 or 2 million Syrian refugees flooding into Greece. But even if it holds, Germany needs a way to end its dependence on Turkey. No German leader wants to be subject to Turkish blackmail.

This is much easier said than done. On March 7, Stefan Lehne wrote for Carnegie Europe:

In Europe, the EU has created a common state-like space by guaranteeing the free movement of EU citizens and establishing an area of passport-free travel while leaving most powers regarding immigration and refugee flows at the level of the individual member states.The economic logic driving these projects—a desire to complete and strengthen the EU’s internal market—obscured their far-reaching political implications. By opening their borders, EU member states abandoned the long-established sovereign right to control who enters and leaves their territories. …

Yet having abandoned this sovereignty, the EU has done little to form new European-wide institutions to protect and control that border. Relying on Turkey has been a quick and easy alternative, but one with major downsides. Watch for Europe to be forced to develop its own border systems and defense arrangements to protect those borders—in other words, to take another gigantic step toward becoming a superstate. For more on how the migration crisis is changing Europe, read “Europe’s Old Demons Return.”