Tensions between Germany and Turkey escalated Wednesday after Berlin summoned the Turkish ambassador to receive an official protest after Ankara arrested several human rights activists, including a German citizen. Berlin has warned that EU aid to Turkey could be at risk, putting in jeopardy a key migrant deal.
A Turkish court Tuesday ordered the detention of Peter Steudtner, a German national who was attending a human rights workshop in Istanbul and was among six rights activists held as part of an ongoing crackdown since a failed coup last year.
“The Turkish government needs to immediately and directly hear the German government's outrage and incomprehension as well as its crystal clear expectations in the case of Peter Steudtner and, this time, without diplomatic niceties,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schafer on the summoning of the ambassador.
“Absolutely unjustified,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel in response to Steudtner's detention. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel cut short his vacation to deal with the increased diplomatic tension.
Steudtner is the 10th German national to be held in the ongoing crackdown. “Turkish-German relations at the moment are incredibly stained,” warns political columnist Semih Idiz of the al-Monitor website. “But under normal circumstances ambassadors should be withdrawn and doors slammed and this is not happening…”
EU aid for migrants in question
Along with Turkey being key to counterterrorism cooperation, it is acting as a gatekeeper on stemming the flow of migrants into Europe following an agreement with the European Union. More than one million migrants escaping war and persecution in Africa and the Middle East have crossed into Europe using irregular land and sea routes back in 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Observers say the deepening crisis between Germany and Turkey could jeopardize $3.4 billion in EU aid, which is part of the migrant deal.
“Unfortunately we have constant cause to talk to Turkey about civil and press freedoms,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert told a news conference. “We think it is important to review aid in light of the latest developments.”
Tensions have been simmering for years between the two NATO allies; but, Berlin's granting of asylum to dozens of Turkish diplomats and military personnel following the failed coup in July 2016 brought tensions to a boiling point.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly accused Berlin of aiding conspirators against him. Erdogan made reference to what he called international conspirators Saturday in a speech to mark the defeat of the attempted coup.
“There are so many enemies lying in ambush, unwilling to grant us the right of existence. If I name them one by one, we will be confronted by a very serious international crisis,” Erdogan said.
Germany has become a gathering point for Erdogan's opponents, with opposition media, including a television station, broadcasting to Turkey. Erdogan has also criticized Berlin for failing to crack down on the activities of the Kurdish rebel group the PKK, which is fighting the Turkish state. Berlin refutes the allegations.
Suspicions are growing that detained German citizens are becoming pawns in the deepening crisis. “When you focus on individuals, especially foreigners detained, there is a sense imprisoning people is almost a form of blackmail, a form of bargaining,” said Emma Sinclair Webb, senior Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch. Ankara dismisses any political motivation behind the detentions, maintaining that the judiciary is independent.
Germany moves planes
The war against Islamic State has also fallen victim to the increasingly acrimonious dispute. Germany is in the process of relocating its reconnaissance planes used against the jihadists from Turkey's Incirlik air base, after Ankara stopped German lawmakers from visiting its personnel at the base. The dispute has now spread to German forces operating at the Turkish Konya airbase.
Analysts say Berlin, along with the rest of the EU, could be paying the price for more than a decade of all but freezing Ankara's effort to join the regional bloc. Merkel has been one of most outspoken critics of the bid.
“There is very little stick that Europe has to wield against Turkey,” notes columnist Idiz. “Merkel appears to be in a weaker position. Erdogan is very bullish. He is very uncompromising and European leaders, including Merkel, don't know how to handle him. So, Merkel looks embarrassed and that's how Erdogan is playing it.”