Erdogan tries to turn the page on controversial German visit, but can he succeed?
Issued on: Modified:
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Germany Thursday for a state visit that includes real as well as symbolic attempts to paper over strains in bilateral relations. But it may take more than a few photo-ops to do the job.
What a difference a year, a currency crisis, US tariffs and a standoff with Washington over a detained American pastor can make.
Last year, when German authorities blocked Erdogan from holding campaign rallies in a number of cities, the Turkish president accused his country’s largest EU trading partner of “Nazi practices”. Bilateral relations between the two countries were at an all-time low in the lead-up to the April 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum, with Berlin slamming Ankara’s human rights track record and Turkey accusing Germany of “harbouring terrorists” from the Gulen movement accused of plotting a July 2016 coup attempt.
A little over a year later, Erdogan believes it’s time to bury the hatchet. In an op-ed in the leading German daily, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, on Thursday, the Turkish leader said it was time to “set aside our differences of opinion and concentrate on our joint interests”.
There were the usual displays of rapprochement on Thursday, when Erdogan arrived in Berlin for his first formal state visit as president to Germany. The Turkish president was received with military honours at Berlin airport and whisked through a city under security lockdown as protestors gathered at the airport and his hotel near the Brandenburg Gate.
"Erdogan's visit, a few months after his overwhelming victory in the [June 24] Turkish presidential election, can also mean: 'I am an undisputed leader in my country, and I want to be recognised as such on the international stage,’” noted Turkish analyst Jana J. Jabbour in an interview with FRANCE 24 (in French). Following his razor-thin win in last year’s controversial constitutional referendum and international criticism of his post-coup attempt “purges”, Erdogan has been “thirsting for recognition, and that has not changed today", Jabbour added.
For his voters at home and abroad – especially in Germany, which is home to around 3 million people of Turkish origin – perhaps the most symbolic showing of the latest visit is scheduled for Saturday, when Erdogan officially opens a new, multimillion euro, mega mosque in the German cathedral city of Cologne.
Mega mosque turns troubled symbol of unity
With its towering minarets flanking a neo-Ottoman-style dome that appears to open up like a flower-bud, the Cologne Central Mosque is an impressive sight. But while it was conceived as an emblem of integration, the mosque turned into a symbol of discord for nearly a decade following construction delays, rows between its German architect and Turkish builders, spiralling budgets and opposition from anti-immigrant groups.
Located in the city’s Ehrenfeld district – a diverse neighbourhood that is home to the vibrant Keupstrasse shopping street better known as “Little Istanbul” – the mosque is run by the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB).
The powerful DITIB runs more than 900 mosques in Germany and staffs them with imams who do not have to be German citizens and receive their salaries directly from Diyanet, the Turkish government’s religious authority.
Tensions between German authorities and the Turkish religious body have been mounting in recent years with the DITIB accused of serving as the long arm of Erdogan’s government in Germany. Last week, German media reported that the country’s domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt fur Verfassungsschutz (BfV), is deciding whether to put the DITIB under surveillance following a series of scandals, including an admission by the religious body that some of its preachers were spying on followers of the exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Turkey holds responsible for the 2016 coup attempt. Gulen however denies the allegations.
The DITIB has repeatedly maintained it is a non-political group and that “few” individual preachers had provided information about suspected Gulen followers to Ankara.
A vote bank to woo
The DITIB-run Cologne mosque, the largest in Germany with a 1,200 congregation capacity, was finally completed last year and opened to worshippers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in 2017. But it has not been officially inaugurated – a privilege Erdogan will enjoy over the weekend.
The Turkish president’s inauguration of the Cologne mosque symbolises Turkey's "pan-Islamist policy", explained Jabbour, noting that "the advent of the 2011 Arab revolutions prompted Erdogan to believe that an alternative was possible to European integration, namely an Islamic statement of Turkish identity in opposition to the Judeo-Christian Western identity".
Germany’s Turkish community represents an important vote bank for Erdogan. During the controversial 2017 constitutional referendum, more than 51 percent of diaspora Turks approved changing the constitution to grant the Turkish presidency unprecedented powers. With Germany home to the world’s largest Turkish community outside Turkey, the country has witnessed giant Erdogan campaign rallies in the past, when he often calls on German Turks to reject assimilation and invites them to return home to partake in the Turkish economic boom.
A banquet for ‘a criminal’
But that boom, fueled by overspending and artificially low interest rates, has been going to bust over the past few months with the Turkish lira losing nearly 40 percent of its value this year amid increasing inflation and escalating foreign debt.
Turkey’s summer of economic discontent reached boiling point last month, when US President Donald Trump slapped tariffs on Turkish aluminium and steel imports amid a diplomatic spat over a detained US pastor, Andrew Brunson.
With the economy teetering, Erdogan hopes that his visit to Germany could start a rollback of bilateral tensions that saw Berlin warning German businesses and citizens to avoid Turkey.
But it’s not going to be an easy case for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has faced criticism for inviting Erdogan on a state visit. "It seems as though the German government is gearing up to betray once again all those in Turkey who are longing for a free, democratic and secular society," said Deniz Yucel, a German-Turkish journalist who spent over a year in a Turkish jail, at a media awards ceremony in Potsdam.
Calling the visit “a betrayal”, Yucel noted that German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier would be “hosting a criminal” at a state banquet set for Friday.
Several German opposition politicians are boycotting the banquet, which Merkel herself is not scheduled to attend.
Sensitive to criticisms of Merkel’s inability to stand up to Erdogan due to a migrant deal between Turkey and the EU, German junior foreign minister Michael Roth told a national radio station Thursday that, "We have to talk with each other…There must be no other country outside the European Union with whom relations are so important and yet so difficult."
The difficulties will be apparent on Saturday, when Erdogan opens the Cologne Central Mosque. German authorities have warned Erdogan against campaigning overtly when he visits Cologne. But that’s a challenge for the consummate Turkish politician who is known to seize every opportunity to turn public events into self-promotional rallies. Against a backdrop of an imposing mosque that took so long to get off the ground, it could present a photo-op that’s hard to resist.