German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey in February signaled a sense of German commitment to bolstering its relationship with Turkey. The meeting, one in a series of several Merkel visits to Turkey, resulted in a mutual agreement to pursue a diplomatic push to halt the Russian-backed assault on Aleppo. It also came on the heels of a hard fought EU-Turkey joint action plan on refugees, the finalization of which can be attributed to Merkel’s relentless commitment to the agreement despite the toll it was taking on her approval rating at home.
Since then, progress on implementing the EU-Turkey refugee agreement has stalled, and the sincerity of the relationship is again being again tested as the Bundestag voted yesterday to adopt a symbolic resolution recognizing the deportation of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 as genocide. Turkey quickly denounced the vote and recalled its Ambassador to Berlin, as it did when Austria passed a similar resolution last year. Germany and Austria are not the first countries to formally adopt such a resolution. France, Italy, and the Netherlands have likewise all adopted similar measures in previous years. The timing of Germany’s move hints that the legislation is pushbacking against Merkel’s willingness to acquiesce to Turkey in order to stem the refugee crisis.
The prospect of such a resolution has been on the table in Germany for the last several years, but has been perpetually postponed. “The resolution was not intended to damage relations with Turkey, which is a reliable partner and NATO member,” senior Christian Democratic Union (CDU) parliamentary leader Michael Grosse-Bromer has said, defending its timing. However, the refugee-deal-weary sentiments in the German opposition and within Merkel’s own party are hard to ignore at such a delicate time for the refugee agreement. “The resulting scene in the event of approval of this resolution will not bring any benefit, either for Turkey or for Germany, or for our vitally important projects that we will continue working together on very closely,” lamented AKP national assembly member and co-chair of the German Turkish Parliamentary Friendship Group Sirin Unal.
Chancellor Merkel, who abstained from the vote along with several other influential German political figures, said yesterday during a news conference, “There is a lot that binds Germany to Turkey and even if we have a difference of opinion on an individual matter, the breadth of our links, our friendship, our strategic ties, is great.” But the refugee agreement, the most recently forged of those bonds, has already been under strain and is now further threatened by the resolution. The cornerstone of Turkey’s benefit from the refugee agreement has been the restart of its stalled EU accession process. The most important piece of this process right now is visa free travel, which is currently at risk of derailment over the language of Turkish anti terrorism laws. Under heavy pressure from her constituency and the European Parliament, Chancellor Merkel has accepted the hardening of the EU’s demands for Turkey to narrow its anti terrorism legislation before lifting visa restrictions for Turkish guests. Turkey has defended its current anti terrorism legislation as necessary amid ongoing security threats from renewed attacks by the PKK.
For now Ankara and Brussels have both dug in their heels on the anti terrorism law requirement. Turkey has said it will break from the refugee agreement if visa free travel is not implemented, something that Merkel has been working hard to avoid. The Bundestag genocide vote will complicate the relationship going forward. Unlike previous votes in Austria and France where Turkey eventually reestablished ties, the German case and timing will be harder to move on from simply because of the increased stakes of the bilateral relationship and the leverage Turkey holds over its European neighbors. The EU has become increasingly frustrated with Turkey’s strong position in negotiations as well as with its refusal to amend its anti terrorism laws. Inversely, without visa liberalization there is little benefit for Turkey continue to adhere to the refugee agreement. Germany, the country in the middle trying to both salvage Merkel’s standing as the major player in EU politics as well as the fledgeling deal, may have just created a perfect spoiler for the refugee agreement.