Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 30

The recent angry exchanges between the Turkish and German governments over the integration of Turks living in Germany have highlighted the increasing vulnerability of Turkish policy to the personality of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On February 10, Erdogan told an audience of around 18,000 Turks in the German city of Cologne that they should resist attempts to assimilate them into German society but should remain faithful to their Turkish traditions (Hurriyet, Milliyet, Yeni Safak, Zaman, Sabah, February 11).

Erdogan had already clashed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the education of the Turks living in Germany. Approximately 2.5 million people of Turkish origin currently live in Germany, around one-third of whom have German citizenship. Erdogan insists that the priority of children of Turkish origin should be to learn Turkish, with German as a second language. He has called for an increase in the number of Turkish schools in Germany and even promised to send teachers from Turkey. In contrast, Merkel has called on all those living in Germany to prioritize learning German in order to facilitate their integration into German society and ensure their full access to public services and employment. She condemned Erdogan’s speech in Cologne and pointedly remarked: “We shall have to continue debating our understanding of integration issues with the Turkish prime minister” (Anatolian Agency, February 11).

Merkel’s statement triggered an angry response from Erdogan. On February 12, he told a meeting of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), “Assimilation is a crime against humanity. I may think differently from Merkel on this matter but I explicitly declare that nobody can dictate to the Turkish community to assimilate” (Hurriyet, February 13).

On February 13, Erdogan went one step further. “We may not agree with Mrs. Merkel on the subject of assimilation and integration. This is true. In any case, if I act according to what she thinks then I am not myself. Nor are we ourselves. We have no desire to be like them” (Milliyet, February 14).

There is no question that, since they first began arriving as guest workers in what was then West Germany in the 1960s, Turks have frequently suffered from racial discrimination. There have also been numerous occasions when Turks have been attacked by extremist German nationalists, sometimes with fatal consequences. Shortly before Erdogan arrived in Germany, nine Turks died in a fire in the western German city of Ludwigshafen. The cause of the blaze is still unclear. However, both the Turkish media and Erdogan himself immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was the result of a racist arson attack. Erdogan insisted on sending a team of investigators to Ludwigshafen from Turkey.

Erdogan’s blunt, often brusque, personal manner is probably an electoral asset, particularly among the rural and urban poor who form the bulk of the AKP’s grassroots support and who are often alienated by the honeyed words of the Turkish elite. However, diplomatically, it increasingly appears to be a liability.

Erdogan currently enjoys more political power than any other Turkish politician in at least the last 20 years (see EDM, February 1). When Erdogan was first appointed prime minister in March 2003, a team of bureaucrats attempted to smooth his rough edges and persuade him to adopt a more measured, less hectoring tone, in his speeches and meetings. In terms of Turkey’s foreign relations, Turkey undoubtedly benefited from the calm demeanor of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, who was as polished as Erdogan is often raw. However, since Gul’s elevation to the presidency in August 2007, Erdogan has not only increased his personal control over the decision-making process in the AKP but also adopted a higher profile in foreign affairs. Such is his stature within the AKP that no one now dares either to disagree with him or suggest that he should be less aggressive and more conciliatory. Ali Babacan, Gul’s successor as foreign minister, has been ineffective and often invisible, to the point where AKP officials close to Erdogan are now discussing replacing Babacan as Turkey’s main interlocutor with the EU in the hope of restarting Turkey’s stalled accession process.

Erdogan’s latest outburst will have done little to persuade the opponents of Turkish accession in the EU of the error of their ways. Indeed it will have further alienated the very country that Turkey needs most to convince. Relations with France, the other main opponent of Turkish accession, are currently extremely tense, not least over France’s recognition of the Armenian genocide. There appears little prospect of an imminent improvement. But the same could not have been said about Germany. Over the last 18 months, Merkel had reduced the references in her public speeches to her opposition to full Turkish membership. There was hope that the two countries could at least engage in a productive dialogue without being held hostage to public rhetoric. These hopes have now suffered a severe blow. Perhaps most bewilderingly, Erdogan’s outburst came just weeks after a number of Turkish officials, including Gul and Babacan, responded to criticism of the AKP’s reluctance to implement the reforms required for EU membership by promising that 2008 would be “the year of the EU.”

But even more bewildered will be the members of Turkey’s non-Turkish minorities, particularly by Erdogan’s declaration that “assimilation is a crime against humanity.” Over the years, particularly in the predominantly Kurdish southeast and the Laz-speaking northeast of Turkey, the Turkish authorities have changed the names of thousands of villages and hamlets and replaced them with Turkish names. Non-Turkish minorities still face restrictions on the use of their languages and even the names that they can call their children. Unlike in Germany, anyone who takes Turkish citizenship is almost automatically required to assume a new Turkish name. While Erdogan’s insistence on Turks in Germany being educated in their mother tongue is in marked contrast to his refusal to allow education in minority languages such as Kurdish inside Turkey.