The Turkish Effect in German Politics

Never before have so many seats in the German parliament been held by politicians of Turkish origin. There are thirteen of them, representing every political party. Nevertheless, the Turkish community has yet to be fully integrated into majority society.

Perhaps in no other European country has the failed coup attempt in Turkey in mid-July 2016 held such resonance as in Germany. As soon as it became clear that the coup had failed and the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had fully regained power, Turkish communities in cities across Germany staged demonstrations in support of his government.

This was not the first time mass rallies of these proportions had taken place. Most recently people went out into the streets in June, after the German parliament adopted a resolution recognizing the 1915 Armenian massacre by the Ottoman Empire as a genocide.

Public demonstrations by the representatives of the Turkish community in German cities epitomize their growing confidence. In a word, they no longer feel they are just descendants of former Gastarbeiter, i.e. a potential source of cheap labor whose life is confined within their own ethnic group, and they are by no means reluctant to give a public voice to their preferences, albeit at the cost of a confrontation with majority society. This, however, also raises the issue of their loyalty to the country that accepted them years ago and is for some of them their place of birth.

The change in their behavior is, to a large extent, linked to the figure of the current president of Turkey, who in his homeland derives his popularity primarily from his contribution to the country’s recent economic growth, which has under his watch extended also to the Turks living abroad. Erdogan himself became aware of this potential five years ago. This was when he organized the first public meetings in Germany in the run-up to the Turkish parliamentary election, aiming to garner the vote of the sizeable Turkish minority that had been left to lie fallow in the past.

Around half of the three-million-strong Turkish community in Germany have retained their Turkish citizenship and are therefore entitled to participate in Turkish elections. The last three elections (one presidential and two parliamentary) in which they were able to take active part also resulted in their increased mobilization in Germany. An important contributing factor was the fact that the Berlin government allowed them to cast their votes at Turkish consulates in Germany, saving many potential voters a trip to Turkey.

Erdogan and his party scored very well among the Turks in Germany. For example, 570,000 Turkish voters in Germany took part in the snap election of November 2015, with 59.7 percent voting for the Justice and Development Party (AKP). In no other European party did the ruling party score as high as in Germany.

However, this strong showing in the diaspora would not have been possible without several years spent on systematic forging and strengthening of ties between Ankara and the Turkish diasporas abroad, not only in Germany and other European countries but also in the United States. Initiated by the previous lay governments, this effort has further intensified since the conservative Islamist AKP came to power in 2002. Ankara’s policy vis-a-vis the Turkish diasporas has aimed at strengthening the role of Turkish associations, making them readier for action and able to have a greater impact on public discourse in their host countries.

In Germany it was the Union of the European-Turkish Democrats (UETD) that soon started playing a key role. The organization is regarded as an arm of the current ruling party (AKP) abroad. Its representatives were the formal organizers of the election rallies in support of Erdogan and they were the ones calling on the German Turks to come out into the streets in condemnation of the attempt to oust Erdogan’s government.

The second lever Ankara has used to exert its influence in Germany is the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (known as DiTiB), a base for numerous Muslim activities in Germany. A branch of the Ankara-based Presidency of Religious Affairs, the DiTiB sponsors a number of mosques and organizes the teaching of Islam in Germany. Its head also serves as a counsellor for religious and social affairs at the Turkish embassy in Germany. In the past, when Turkey was ruled by governments that championed the country’s lay character, the DiTiB stood for a moderate, state-tolerated Islam and the mosques it sponsored often provided a counterweight to radical Islamist movements such as Milli Görüs (National Vision).

However, since the rise to power of AKP—which initially also presented itself as a moderate Islamic party—the DiTiP has undergone a gradual transformation along the lines of the ruling party. Following the recent events in Turkey, some German politicians, including the co-chairman of the Greens Cem Özdemir, himself of Turkish origin, expressed their concern that that there was a risk that the current Ankara government might inculcate the Turkish community in Germany with their authoritative understanding of democracy through institutions affiliated with the DiTiB.

The more the current Turkish leadership strives to mobilize and politicize the Turkish community in Germany, the more the German political establishment struggles with its response to these attempts. It tried to ignore Erdogan’s first pre-election rallies, but had to abandon this policy once the Turkish prime minister, addressing one of these rallies, questioned the key postulate of Germany’s immigration policy—the necessity to learn the German language. He appealed to his fellow-countrymen not to assimilate, and he recommended that their children learn Turkish first and German only later.

Reports that emerged a few weeks ago of the German intelligence ser- vice MIT running a larger network of informers in Germany than the Sta- si (East German state security) had run during the Cold War further complicate this ambivalent picture. According to information from the German media, the Turkish informers are primarily focused on the country’s Turkish community. An unbiased observer might have expected this information to cause an outburst of indignation in Germany, or even a protesting diplomatic note addressed to the Turkish ambassador to the country. In fact, the opposite has happened, with intelligence experts such as Erich Schmidt-Eenboom putting the record straight in an interview with the daily Die Welt when he stated that “In Germany the activities of Turkish intelligence have always been tolerated.” However, he also warned that the intelligence service has already moved to carrying out “intelligence repression” within the Turkish community.

Despite the long-term political and economic partnership between Germany and Turkey, the relations between the two countries have never been straightforward. During the past year in particular, these relations proved to be extremely unstable on a number of occasions, their frequently- cited importance and mutual benefits notwithstanding. Most recently this has been evident in the discussion about the treaty the European Union has signed with Turkey, aimed at resolving the refugee crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the treaty’s main champion, has been repeatedly rebuked for having turned a blind eye to violations of human rights in Turkey and to the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of President Erdogan’s government, all because of the key role his country plays in dealing with the refugee crisis.

In fact, Merkel has always supported close links between the EU and Turkey. At the same time, however, she has always openly admitted that when it comes to deepening these links in future, discussion has never been about a fully-fledged membership but, at most, a so-called “privileged partnership.”

In this she has basically remained true to the policy of one of her predecessors, Helmut Kohl. In the 1990s, when Turkey was under military rule, the country’s membership in the EU was not on the agenda. With the advent of democratic governments, Turkey’s calls for Europeans—especially Germans— to change their negative attitude grew louder. However, this was out of the question for Kohl’s government, fearful as it was of the potential impact of Turkey benefiting from the free movement of people as a result of the country gaining full EU membership. When in December 1997 the European summit in Luxembourg adopted a resolution which determined which candidate countries would be invited to begin EU accession talks, Turkey, unlike the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, was not included on the list, even though it had applied as early as 1959.

The then Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz was furious and in interviews in the German media he vented his frustration at being constantly overlooked by the Germans. He compared this behavior to the Nazi era, when Hitler’s government ruled in the spirit of “securing ‘Lebensraum’ in the East.” Yilmaz argued that Germany was indebted to Turkey for having formed a buffer zone between the East and the West during the Cold War, and its huge military expenditure having contributed to West Germany’s stability. However, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Turkish prime minister claimed that Berlin changed its priorities, pivoting towards Central and Eastern Europe, leaving Turkey trailing the list of Germany’s interests.

From this perspective the change of German government in the autumn of 1998—with the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder assuming the post of federal chancellor —quite naturally raised high expectations in Ankara. In less than a year these expectations seemed to have materialized. In December 1999 at a European summit in Helsinki Turkey received the status of an official candidate for membership in what was generally regarded as a diplomatic success for Schröder and his Foreign Minister, the Green Party’s Joschka Fischer. The official negotiations did not start until October 2005, by which time, ironically, a return of the Christian Democrats (CDU) was again on the cards. Nevertheless, the new Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged the fact that the negotiations had begun and did not press for them to be abandoned immediately, even though this was something her party had promised in previous election campaigns.

In terms of future Turkish-German relations, however, another legacy of Schröder’s seven-year reign is worth bearing in mind: the reform of the German citizenship laws, which have weakened the previously key principle of “ius sanguinis” (right of blood). As a result, not only residents who could prove their ethnic German origin were eligible for citizenship, but also, among others, descendants of foreigners born in Germany. The second and third generation of German Turks were the hottest candidates, provided at least one of their parents had lived in Germany continuously for at least eight years on an unrestricted residence permit.

The Red-Green government had hoped that the introduction of dual citizenship would facilitate the Turks’ integration into majority society. Critics of the plan were quick to warn of the opposite effect: that the dual passport would cause more confusion and make integration more difficult. They were particularly concerned about a provision envisaging that young German-born Turks had to decide between the ages of 18 and 23 whether they wanted German citizenship in addition to the Turkish one.

At the time the introduction of dual citizenship caused one of the greatest domestic political crises in Germany of recent years. Christian Democrats in the Land of Hesse launched a petition against the plan—it garnered over a million signatures. Although this helped them win the next regional election, they were unable to stop the law from being adopted.

Against all expectations the Christian Democrats’ return to power in 2005 failed to bring about any dramatic changes in the relations with Turkey. This was partly because the CDU had to form a grand coalition with the Social Democrats, who prevented the reversal of key policies of the Schröder era, including a liberalization of the citizenship law as well as the EU accession negotiations with Turkey. At the same time, a younger generation of leaders with a more pragmatic attitude to Turkey emerged within the CDU: from the new Chancellor Angela Merkel, through such regional prime ministers as Christian Wulff and Peter Müller, to prominent MPs such as Peter Altmeier or Norbert Röttgen.

It was Christian Wulff who, in his capacity as prime minister of the Land of Lower Saxony, appointed Aygül Özkan as the country’s first minister with a Turkish background. Later, when Wullf became the country’s president, in a speech marking the anniversary of the country’s unification he declared that “Islam was a part of Germany,” a sentence that for years to come was quoted in nearly every debate on the integration of Muslims into German society. After all, Merkel herself reiterated the sentiment on various occasions, indicating that it had her support, and it caused a great resentment among the conservative faction of her party as well as its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

Within this logic it is hardly surprising that in 2014 Chancellor Merkel’s government went even further in liberalizing the original dual citizenship legislation, revoking the requirement for people to choose one of the two passports on reaching the age of 23. Migration experts such as Klaus J. Bade of the University of Osnabrück raised the alarm: “If a German acquires Turkish citizenship in addition to the German, it’s not a problem and it won’t affect him. If, however, a Turk acquires German citizenship and keeps it, it will cause an identity crisis.’’

The issue of dual passports is now, perhaps unexpectedly, back on the table, partly as a result of a series of terrorist attacks in July 2016. The discussion on tightening the security in the country quickly turned into the issue of the integration of Muslims into German society, or rather the question of whether the approach to enhancing integration used hitherto was working or not. At the same time the idea of dual citizenship as a way to easier integration has been called into question in light of the fact that a great many young people, likely owners of both Turkish and German passport, took part in a rally in support of Erdogan, not only hailing the president and his government but also calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty, a demand regarded as incompatible with the social and constitutional order introduced in Germany after 1945.

At their conference in December 2016, CDU has agreed on a resolution calling for a stop to the practice of issuing dual passports. This happened despite the opposition of the party leader, Chancellor Merkel. Many things now indicate that this demand will become CDU’s crucial theme in the elections in autumn.

From here it is but a short step to the opening of a new front in the already fraught relations between Berlin and Ankara, should Germany seriously consider restricting the rules for dual citizenship or indeed abolishing it altogether in the future. Although it may appear unlikely, this is a much more explosive issue than the easing of visa requirements for Turkish citizenship, the Bundestag resolution on Armenia, or Erdogate, the satirical poem by Jan Böhmermann that mocked and offended Turkey’s president.

Although Germany and Turkey do not have a common border and are thousands of kilometers apart, the two countries are like communicating vessels, with tension and pressure in one vessel immediately affecting the other, and vice versa.

Robert Schuster

is the managing editor of Aspen Review Central Europe. He was the editor-in-chief of Mezinárodní politika monthly from 2005 to 2015, and a correspondent for the Austrian daily Der Standard in the Czech Republic from 2000 to 2012. He has been a foreign correspondent of Lidové noviny daily since 2015, where he covers news reports from German-speaking countries. He is a regular guest in commentaries broadcast by Český rozhlas Plus.

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