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Ankara Will Still Need To Wait For A Breakthrough In Bilateral Relations With Berlin

The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) is the big winner of the country’s 2021 federal elections. Many in Turkey and in Germany’s Turkish diaspora are pinning their hopes on Olaf Scholz, the SPD’s candidate for chancellor.
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There is a clear winner of this week’s federal election in Germany: Olaf Scholz, social democrat, current minister of finance, and vice-chancellor. He will, most likely, become chancellor and lead the next federal coalition government with his Social Democratic Party (SPD) at the helm. His success was the result of a few different factors: First, he was successful in portraying himself as a beacon of hope for all those who reject liberal-conservative policies and strive for a society in which social justice and social security are not sold short. Second, he managed to present himself as a competent, experienced, and credible politician. He thus positioned himself as “a rock” in the post-Merkel thunderstorm. Third, he differentiated himself from fellow candidates Annalena Baerbock (the Greens) and Armin Laschet (Christian Democratic Union) in that he embodied both continuity and departure. As finance minister and vice chancellor, he stood for continuity; yet with his emphasis on social justice, greater welfare for the working class, and “beginning anew”, he stood for change.

There are also many Turks among the electorate. Nearly one million Turks living in Germany are eligible to vote, and traditionally they tend to vote for the SPD. Turks in Germany now hope that the new federal government under the chancellorship of Olaf Scholz will push forward the issue of dual citizenship, provide more opportunities for their participation, and vigorously combat right-wing extremism. A significant portion of the Turkish community in Germany refrains from naturalizing because they do not want to give up their Turkish citizenship — a requirement under the current citizenship law.

That many Turks pin their hopes on a Scholz chancellorship is not without grounds. The social democrat used to live in Hamburg, in a district with a large Turkish population. He was also elected as Hamburg’s mayor and became a member of parliament while representing the same district. Scholz also promoted numerous Turks to the local parliament of Hamburg and the Bundestag via the SPD’s list.

However, the hopes of Turks in Turkey, who expect Scholz to upgrade diplomatic relations between Turkey and Germany, may be misguided. Some even have the pipe dream that the new social democrat-led government will once again stand up for Turkey and bring accession negotiations in motion. Those optimists often refer to the SPD–Green coalition government under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (1998–2005). At that time, Germany was the biggest supporter of Turkey’s accession to the EU. The cooperative relationship between Berlin and Ankara was accompanied by a friendship between Chancellor Schröder and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Despite Scholz’s affinity for Turkish migrants and his awareness of the importance of cooperation with Turkey, a breakthrough in Turkish-German relations during his chancellorship is unlikely for two main reasons:

First, today’s Turkey is a very different country than the Turkey of 1998-2005. Its once marvelous economic growth, attraction of large amounts of foreign direct investment, and robust democratic reform have all but ceased to exist. The governance praxis has become increasingly autocratic, state leadership ignores democratic principles, and human rights have come under intense fire. For example, the failed military coup of 2016 was followed by a disproportionate crackdown on all opposition, regardless of whether they were real or imagined perpetrators of the coup. The government took the revolt of some parts of the armed forms as a welcome opportunity to transform the structure of the state by turning it into an authoritarian presidential system that grants far-reaching powers to its executive.

Second, today’s SPD is a different party than it was under Schröder’s leadership and chancellorship. At that time, the right-wing leading cadres of the party set the tone, adhering to neo-liberal principles with social democratic touches. While the party’s neo-liberal positions have not been completely discarded, they have nonetheless lost influence and are openly questioned. It can be said that the party’s left-wing is now more influential.

Consequently, the left-wing is more vocal in its denunciation of violations of human rights, democracy, balance of powers, and rule of law. So, it can be expected that the aforementioned issues will play a greater role in Berlin and Ankara’s bilateral relations, potentially causing public and diplomatic friction. Besides, today there are significantly more fault lines and a greater potential for conflict within Germany’s Turkish diaspora.

Polarization within the Turkish diaspora has increased in recent years as conflicts in Turkey spill over into Germany. Some conservative Turks have engaged in hostilities with German decision-makers and other political actors, especially those of Turkish origin who fall on the left of the political spectrum. Cem Özdemir and Sevim Dağdelen have experienced harassment at the hands of the Turkish diaspora. Dağdelen has even gone on to argue against deepening bilateral relations with Turkey, instead calling for a tougher course to be taken towards the country.

Some Green politicians have decried the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DİTİB), the largest Turkish religious organization in Germany as a “propaganda tool” of President Erdoğan. If the Greens are part of Scholz’s coalition government, it is likely that DİTİB will become an object of dispute. It is quite possible, that the new federal government will push for the redesign of DİTİB. This could ultimately harm the political participation of Muslim Turks in Germany as well as Berlin’s prospects of positive bilateral relations with Ankara.

In conclusion, a radical change in Germany’s policies towards Turkey cannot be expected from a left-wing government under Scholz’s leadership. However, it is highly probable that tension will increase. This is especially true in the case of a coalition government that includes the Greens alongside the SPD. As both parties have seen their left-wings gain influence, this scenario would see democracy and human rights play a more prominent role in Germany’s approach to Turkey.

In the end, Turkish-German relations will continue to be dominated by security considerations. Furthermore, there will be no significant development regarding the Customs Union — which Turkey cares deeply about — or Turkey-EU relations at large. Finally, we can say that the relations between Turkey and the EU will largely focus on refugee and security issues, which are of vital importance for Europe.

*Yaşar Aydın is an affiliated senior researcher at Foreign Policy Institute (METU) and lecturer at the Hamburg Protestant University for Social Work and Deaconry Hamburg. Aydın previously worked as a senior researcher at the HWWI – Hamburg Institute of International Economics and SWP – German Institute for International and Security Affairs and taught at the Turkish-German University Istanbul. He can be found on Twitter: @yasaraydin10