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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Erdogan and Merkel start burying the hatchet

The pair have a mutual interest in repairing ties due to Turkish economic woes and migration pressure on Merkel

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, Germany, September 29, 2018. Presidential Press Office / Reuters
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, Germany, September 29, 2018. Presidential Press Office / Reuters

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made no new friends during his three-day visit to Germany but the very fact that he came heralds gradual progress in his country’s relations with the European Union.

The trip, as unharmonious as expected but without major upsets, was born out of necessity on both sides rather than any heartfelt desire for a rapprochement.

Mr Erdogan needs to boost trade with the EU to haul his country out of an economic crisis that has been aggravated by US sanctions and has seen the Turkish lira slump 40 per cent against the euro and the dollar this year.

Europe, and Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular, need his continued cooperation to halt illegal migration across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece under a deal reached in 2016 that dramatically reduced the refugee influx. The bloc's rising populists have lambasted the German leader for her open-door policy at the height of the migrant crisis and she is under increasing pressure at home from the far-right AfD party.

During the talks, Mr Erdogan pledged to meet the EU's criteria for achieving visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens, and called for the EU-Turkish customs union to be expanded and for Turkey’s stalled EU membership talks to be revived.

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.

Whether any of that will happen remains to be seen. Relations have deteriorated too far in recent years for quick progress to be likely.

Mr Erdogan, enraged by EU and German criticism of his crackdowns on political opponents, has accused politicians in Berlin of behaving like Nazis, prevented German lawmakers from visiting troops stationed in Turkey and lobbied them to prosecute a comedian for insulting him in a poem.

The greatest damage has come came from Turkey jailing German citizens on what Berlin regards as trumped-up political charges of belonging to banned organisations. The row has hit German corporate investment in Turkey.

But the ever-diplomatic Mrs Merkel insisted that the trip marked a step forward even though “deep differences” remained.

“People who don’t talk to each other won’t find any common positions,” she told a joint news conference with Mr Erdogan on Friday. “Sometimes that takes a long time. But I am committed to such talks.”

She called for the release of the handful of detainees but stressed that the two Nato allies had many common interests, not least because Germany is home to some three million people of Turkish descent, Turkey’s biggest diaspora.

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The talks yielded some limited concrete progress with the two leaders agreeing to step up talks on economic, technological and security cooperation and to call a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron in October to discuss the Syrian war.

“Both sides undertook a cautious attempt at reconciliation,” said the chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany, Gökay Sofuoğlu. “The open and critical exchange of known views gives hope for further talks.”

Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee, was less upbeat. “The timing of this visit was wrong – it was far too early,” he said. “The Turkish-German relationship is neither better nor simpler after this visit.”

Relations are destined to thaw only gradually at best.

Mr Erdogan angered his hosts at a banquet on Friday night hosted by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, departing from the text of a speech to claim Germany was harbouring terrorists. He was referring to members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is banned in Germany and has waged a decades-long insurgency for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.

On Saturday, he was accused of hijacking the opening of Germany’s largest mosque in Cologne for his own political purposes at an event that attracted hundreds of Turkish nationalists chanting “Erdogan” and making the four-finger Rabaa sign that is also used by the Muslim Brotherhood and symbolises political Islam.

Critics said he turned an event that should have celebrated the integration of ethnic Turks in Germany into one that highlighted divisions between the communities.

German officials, angered at being invited late to the event, boycotted the Turkish-language ceremony where Mr Erdogan held a combative speech saying football player Mesut Özil had been hounded out of the German national team after the World Cup because of his Turkish roots. "This racism has to end," he said.

German politicians and commentators criticised the red carpet treatment for a leader widely vilified as an autocrat.

“I stayed away because I didn’t want to be an extra in the opening ceremony of our mosque by Herr Erdogan,” said Josef Wirges, mayor of the Cologne district of Ehrenfeld, where the mosque is located. “He thinks he’s a sultan who can come here and tell everybody what to do. Tomorrow when this gentleman has gone we’ll have to clear up the mess he’s left behind.”

Mass circulation newspaper Bild called Mr Erdogan’s visit shameful. “Erdogan’s first official act upon arriving was to stretch four fingers from the window of his Maybach limousine,” the newspaper wrote in a commentary.

“The greeting of Islamists. The greeting of the spiritual fathers of September 11. The greeting of shariah,” it continued. “The greeting that tells Germans with Turkish roots in Germany: you are proud Turks and not softie Germans.”