This week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz traveled to Ankara where he was welcomed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It was Scholz’s first official visit to Turkey since taking over from former Chancellor Angela Merkel. Scholz underscored the positive nature of the relationship by opting to visit so soon after his election, which under normal circumstances would not be unusual as the countries are close allies, friends and partners in many ways. However, since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the term “normal circumstances” no longer fits.
At a press conference and at the end of their face-to-face meeting, which lasted an hour longer than initially planned, Ukraine definitively imposed itself at the top of the agenda, the two leaders having stressed the urgent need for a ceasefire in Ukraine and therefore for a complete end to the war. Scholz explicitly thanked Turkey for enforcing the Montreux Convention banning warships from crossing the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles and stressed the need to safeguard Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty once the war is over.
Yet the question on everyone’s mind is, of course, how to achieve this goal. On the one hand, Germany and the European Union are in favor of sanctions against Russia, Turkey refrains from following suit. On the other hand, Ankara provides combat drones to Ukraine and thus clearly expresses its conviction that Moscow is the aggressor and not the other way around.
We need to put recent unfortunate events in Ukraine into a broader context. With Turkey importing gas and agricultural products from Russia and the development of nuclear power plants emerging as another vital area of cooperation, Scholz definitely appreciates Ankara’s unique position. While Erdoğan stressed that his country would continue its friendship with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Scholz thanked Ankara for openly denouncing the war.
Such a dual strategy, if that terminology is allowed, can prove effective in finding a quick end to the war and preventing innocent civilians from losing their lives to the heinous Russian invasion.
Which path to follow? No individual nation-state can achieve these goals on its own. So would NATO enter the political arena? Scholz mentioned that the alliance is on the verge of strengthening its eastern flank and that both countries are members of NATO, there is a chance that the views of these two countries will become major and decisive factors in the way the alliance is moving forward, because sitting idle is no longer an option for NATO. At the same time, it cannot openly engage in military action vis-à-vis Russia since by definition it is a defensive alliance. With Germany now aware of Turkey’s concerns, aware of the nature of its ties to Russia, and aware that it does not want to challenge the sanctions preference of other NATO members, a compromise can -to be to be found.
According to Scholz, the sanctions against Russia are already working. However, it remains to be seen who will really suffer in Russia, the poor or the rich. This brings us to a related topic: public opinion.
Here, Germany and Turkey are probably closer to each other than many observers think or believe. Although public opinion in both countries clearly denounces Russia’s aggression and wants an immediate end to the bloodshed, active military involvement on both sides is not envisaged. What voters in both countries prefer instead is to provide active humanitarian assistance and both are already welcoming innocent people in need while sending aid. Turkey has so far sent more than 50 aid trucks to Ukraine.
Between sanctions and combat drones, waiting for NATO to pull itself together, taking into account the public reaction to the denunciation of the war and refraining from any active military involvement, Scholz and Erdoğan made one point clear: aggression, the invasion, the war must end. A ceasefire must be negotiated without further delay.
50 billion dollars of trade
Given the proximity of the nations, topics other than Ukraine were also on the agenda. Erdoğan announced that he was determined to increase bilateral trade volume, which stood at $38 billion in 2020, to $50 billion. His comment reflects how closely the countries’ economies are intertwined. Scholz agreed and said “more is possible” in this context. As the EU promotes its ambitious green accord initiatives on climate change, Scholz spoke of the potential for further cooperation in the energy sector.
Germany has embarked on a journey to eliminate energy consumption based on fossil fuels within 25 years, which is, of course, a very ambitious plan. What is interesting is that this strategy was thought out long before Russia invaded Ukraine; however, now it needs to be implemented with more urgency.
Moreover, no bilateral leaders’ meeting involving Germany and Turkey would be complete without discussing EU-Turkey relations; however, it must be said that Scholz refrained from explicitly stating that EU membership will happen soon. He only spoke of the need for continued high-level dialogue between the two sides and hinted at a possible upgrade of the customs union without going into details. Cooperation on the situation of migrants has of course been added to the list of items, but no clear commitment has been made for full membership.
State of bilateral affairs
It all depends on how the first visit of a newly elected German Chancellor to Turkey is interpreted. Some will say that it is only a courtesy visit within the framework of good bilateral relations. Others, however, focused much more on the topic of the discussions that took place during the trip. In any case, there is the opportunity to do quite a bit of “reading between the lines” and Scholz’s visit to Ankara is no exception to this rule of journalism.
Aside from the disappointment over the lack of mention of Turkey’s eventual full EU membership, what was particularly noteworthy were Scholz’s comments about citizens of Turkish descent that made of Germany their homeland. The wording of his comments is more interesting than the fact that he mentioned it.
He described the first, second and third generation of residents of Turkish descent as a vital and active part of society. His use of the word “Bürgergesellschaft” (civil society) in this regard highlights two things.
First, Scholz, as newly elected Chancellor, promotes a civic society. Second, he no longer referred to citizens of Turkish origin as those in need of integration, but stated that every citizen living in his country is an integral part of society.
These words must have been well received by citizens of international origin, especially those of Turkish origin. Scholz also drew attention to recently elected politicians of Turkish origin and added that more and more people are running to participate in government.
His comments were not designed to please his host Erdoğan or to play the gallery at home. His words seemed to come naturally and reflected his government’s main attitude towards a multicultural society. Without mentioning the word, his visit was a clear signal that Scholz is not the one taking on “populism.”
In conclusion: bilateral relations are very good. Yet, just as is the case with increasing trading volumes, there is always room for improvement – or as the German saying goes, “da ist noch Luft nach oben”.