The era of Angela Merkel is drawing to a close and a new government has already begun to take shape in Berlin, promising some changes to the steady hand she provided in guiding Germany’s foreign relations.
On September 26, Germany’s federal elections ended with the return to power of the Socialist Democratic Party (SPD) after 16 years of shifting between cooperation with Merkel and the political wilderness. Led by former finance minister Olaf Scholz, the SPD has joined forces with the runner-up Green Party and the pro-business Free Democrats. Each brings with them their own set of priorities that they hope will carry Germany into a prosperous post-Merkel era, and representatives from these parties have secured powerful seats under a new coalition government.
For Turkey, the departure of Merkel comes with a certain amount of ambiguity. During her final visit to Turkey in October, Chancellor Merkel assured Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that her exit would not offer any serious disruption to the complicated but cordial relationship she built with Ankara.
“The relationship between Turkey and Germany, with its negative and positive sides, will go on. It will be recognized by the next government,” Merkel said at a press conference in Istanbul on October 16. “Everybody knows the security and independence of both our countries depends on each other.”
For Erdogan, Merkel has served as an effective bulwark against calls for a harder line from the European Union and voices in her own country over his sabre-rattling and autocratic tendencies. It was with support from Merkel that the E.U and Turkey secured a controversial migration agreement in 2016 that would see Turkey work to prevent migration outflows to the E.U in exchange for financial support.
Under Merkel, Germany has also helped to block sanctions against Turkey for its aggressiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, angering fellow E.U members Greece and Cyprus along the way.
Germany’s new coalition government in contrast embodies a series of shifts on relations with Turkey that reflect in part a pent-up frustration with its democratic backsliding under Erdogan and the belligerent foreign policy he has executed in recent years. Members of the coalition have made clear that they see need for a change in how Berlin engages with Ankara on military exports, economic cooperation, E.U accession and migration. On each of these, Turkey and Erdogan may find a Germany that is less accommodating than under Chancellor Merkel.
Scholz himself has said that he would like to continue to exert efforts to further Turkish-German ties, pointing to the example of the last SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroeder who enjoyed good relations with Ankara.
In an interview with Hurriyet Daily News newspaper before the September elections, Scholz expressed appreciation for the role of Turkish troops in Afghanistan and made clear his hopes to continue cooperation on migration policy in the future. However, he insisted that difficult conversations about the state of Turkish democracy should not be left out either.
“We should exert efforts for a good relationship with Turkey. Of course, the rule of law, democracy and freedoms play an important role. We should think and discuss these issues,” said Scholz.
These comments were essentially an echo of Merkel’s approach to Turkey, but they do disguise some subtle shifts within his own SPD that offer direct challenges for Ankara.
In the last four years, Turkey’s relations with Germany have sunk over dissatisfaction with Erdogan’s muscular assertion of Turkish power in his region, his mix of threats and insults aimed at European leaders, and the centralisation of his rule following the failed coup in 2016 and the 2017 shift from a parliamentary to presidential system. Along the way, Turkey has grown more authoritarian and its image in Germany has deteriorated to the point today where 40% of Germans now see it as an adversary, a distinction shared only with Russia and China.
The SPD’s party manifesto has reflected this souring on Erdogan’s Turkey in subtle ways. For example, it no longer contains any mention of support for continuing Turkey’s accession talks with the E.U, which featured in its prior platform in 2017. It did however keep its criticism of the state of Turkish democracy intact.
There are also more subtle rebukes of Turkish policy in the SPD manifesto that can pose complications. On arms exports, the SPD calls for an “outlawing of autonomous, lethal weapons systems” in order to “counteract the temporal and spatial delimitation of military violence”, pointing to the use of drones in Azerbaijan and Libya as examples. To this end, the SPD notes its support for a more restrictive arms export policy together with other E.U states to countries outside the bloc.
Erdogan has touted the Turkish drone program as a crown jewel of sorts in his quest to build an independent military defence industry at home. Despite the strides towards this goal, Turkey still depends on arms imports from other countries, like Germany, for its military needs and has criticised arms restrictions over its foreign policy choices.
With Scholz as Germany’s Chancellor, the SPD has agreed to a coalition where it controls several of the largest cabinet portfolios, including the Ministry of Defence and Interior. No candidates have yet to be named for these posts.
If the SPD’s position represents a gradual, if subtle, souring on Turkey, the critical views of its coalition partners on Turkey have been more more direct. As they enter positions of power in German foreign policy, they may also find themselves more capable of putting these principles into practice.
The Greens have never been shy about their criticism of Erdogan’s government. Cem Özdemir, a Green lawmaker of Turkish-descent, has frequently called out the abuse of human rights in Turkey under Erdogan, earning him the enmity of Ankara. With Özdemir heading to the Ministry of Agriculture, his direct influence over relations with Turkey are limited, but his party has been a more vocal proponent of Germany rethinking its relations with Turkey.
In their party manifesto, the Greens offered an extensive look at their thoughts on Turkey. They support an renegotiation of the 2016 migration pact with Turkey in favour of a new deal and maintain support for a renewal of accession talks to the E.U conditioned on improvements in Turkish democracy like the SPD.
On arms exports, the Greens have unequivocally stated that they want to see “no German weapons in war zones and dictatorships”. In June, the Greens together with lawmakers from Die Linke, the German leftist party, submitted motions in the Bundestag in support of an arms embargo against Turkey. This proposal was ultimately voted down by Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the SPD.
Annalena Baerbock, the first female foreign minister of Germany and the Greens’ candidate for chancellor, has offered few direct comments on Turkey. She has insisted that Germany adopt a “clearly guided foreign policy” with “authoritarian forces” and she has held true to this position throughout the election.
With Baerbock as foreign minister, Scholz may be compelled to adopt policies that at least in part reflect some of her and her parties’ views, be it on breaking away from Merkel’s ginger handling of autocrats or her willingness to prioritize German defence investments over concerns about human rights.
Just like the Greens, the FDP has offered extensive comments on its views on Turkey and in some cases has been more bold in its positions. Since 2017, the FDP has advocated for a termination of Turkey’s E.U accession talks, arguing that a “Turkey ruled in an authoritarian fashion by President Erdoğan cannot, in the eyes of the Free Democrats, be a candidate for membership.”
Christian Lindner, the FDP leader who is set to take over the Ministry of Finance, has also previously called for a freeze on economic cooperation with Turkey.
In an interview on German television in 2018, Lindner explained that this would mean an end to export guarantees and talks on an updated Customs Union between the E.U and Turkey, something Ankara has been urging for years. In an indirect critique of Erdogan’s government, Lindner ended that talk by saying Germany at least “owes the Turkish opposition that.” In their party manifesto, the FDP went further by saying that “There will be a Turkey after Erdogan” that it would like to see a stronger partnership formed together with.
Unlike the Greens though, the FDP does not support an end to the migration deal with Turkey and did not even mention it in its party platform. Staying true to its pro-business leanings, the FDP has also been opposed to arms restrictions to Turkey, voting against the June bill supported by the Greens and Die Linke. It has also maintained a position that places Turkey as an important ally within NATO.