Another vote, another wrangle between Germany and Turkey
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Just months after an ugly spat over Turkey’s constitutional referendum, Ankara has reacted furiously after the German chancellor and her main challenger in forthcoming elections both said they would seek to end talks on Turkey’s bid to join the EU.
It was one of the few highlights of Sunday’s televised duel between Angela Merkel and her centre-left rival, Martin Schulz, a largely inconclusive affair during which the two main candidates for chancellor struggled to disagree.
Lagging behind in the polls ahead of the September 24 general election, Schulz had been hoping to corner the chancellor on the festering subject of Turkey’s EU membership bid, mindful that his hardline stance is popular with a majority of Germans.
The SPD candidate has repeatedly accused Merkel of being too soft on Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose recent jabs at Germany include accusations of “Nazi practices”.
But, as she has so often done in the past, the German chancellor took the wind out of the SPD’s sails by claiming their policy as her own.
"I don't see [Turkey] ever joining and I had never believed that it would happen," Merkel flatly stated, adding that she would discuss with her EU partners how to “end these membership talks”.
Never a supporter of Turkey’s accession, Merkel was yet to state her opposition this bluntly. In a stinging criticism of Erdogan's rule, she added: "Turkey is departing from all democratic practices at breakneck speed."
Ankara’s response was swift and sharp, coming in the form of a Twitter tirade by Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, who blasted German politicians for fuelling “racism and discrimination”.
"It is not a coincidence that our president Erdogan was the main topic of the debate," Kalin wrote, criticising what he described as mainstream German politicians' "indulgence in populism".
"Germany and Europe's attacks on Turkey/Erdogan, by ignoring essential and urgent problems, are reflections of the narrowing of their horizons," he said.
"We hope that the problematic atmosphere that made Turkish-German relations the victim of this narrow political horizon will end," Kalin added.
Also taking to Twitter, Omer Celik, Turkey's chief negotiator with the EU, slammed both Merkel and her rival for their "careless" and “disrespectful” tone.
“They think the EU is the ‘United States of Germany’,” Celik mocked, accusing the German chancellor of taking a stand against Turkey merely to “avoid falling behind”.
Tit for tat
Turkey's ties with Germany and several other EU states have deteriorated sharply this year, in the wake of Erdogan’s crackdown on dissenters at home and his decision to hold a referendum to bolster his presidential powers.
In the run-up to the controversial April 16 referendum, Turkey reacted furiously when officials in several German cities withdrew permission for political rallies targeted at the estimated three million Turkish nationals on German soil.
That’s when Erdogan said he had been “mistaken” to believe Germany had abandoned “the Nazi practices of the past”.
The Turkish leader has repeatedly accused Germany of sheltering plotters in last year’s failed coup, as well as Kurdish militants, demanding that both be extradited.
Retaliatory measures have included restricting access for German parliamentarians seeking to visit German troops at the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, leading Berlin to announce it was moving those forces out of Turkey.
Turkish officials have also detained several German nationals, including journalist Deniz Yucel, the Istanbul correspondent for German daily Die Welt. Yucel has now spent over 200 days in custody ahead of a trial on terror charges.
Still seething from what he regarded as Berlin’s meddling in the Turkish referendum, Erdogan has decided to respond in kind by interfering with the polls in Germany.
Last month he urged the estimated 1.2 million ethnic Turks who are eligible to vote in Germany to boycott Merkel’s conservative CDU party as well as the SPD and the Greens, describing them as enemies of Turkey.
The injunction has added to the uncertainty regarding this sizeable share of the electorate, which pundits say is slowly shifting away from its traditional allegiance to the centre-left.
Data4U, an opinion research institute specialising in immigrant groups, has suggested the number of ethnic Turks heading to the polls is likely to decrease this year. In the last election four years ago, the figures were already slightly below the total voter turnout.
On Monday, Erdogan’s spokesman claimed the televised debate between Merkel and Schulz was further proof that Germany’s Turks might as well stay at home on September 24.
"It does not matter which party wins in the German elections,” Kalin wrily observed. “[B]ecause the mentality which will win is now obvious."