As Germany prepares to hold federal elections on Sept. 24, the hottest topic on the campaign trail remains the country's Turkey policy. In a televised debate on Sunday evening, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democratic contender Martin Schulz tried to establish who was less powerful against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The two politicians ultimately agreed on blocking the Customs Union update with Ankara, cut financial aid and credits, issue stronger warnings against German citizens traveling to Turkey and reconsider the future of Turkey's EU membership bid. If elected, Mr. Schulz pledged to cancel the refugee deal and stop membership talks with Turkey. By contrast, Mrs. Merkel defended the refugee deal – albeit noting that she would bring up the termination of membership talks with the rest of the EU members.
One thing is clear: Chancellor Merkel has been acting more strategically than Mr. Schulz. Although she always opposed Turkey's membership bid and instead promoted some type of privileged partnership, "Mutti" stands up for the refugee deal in an effort to safeguard Germany's national interests. At the same time, she leaves it to EU leaders to decide the fate of Turkey's membership bid. In turn, Mr. Schulz – one of whose predecessors, Gerhard Schröder, played an important role in launching the membership talks back in 2005 — has taken a tough stance on that issue.
What the two politicians have in common, though, is their willingness to use the Turkish president as an excuse to transform Berlin's relationship with Turkey. At the same time, they have been making a faux distinction between the Turkish people and President Erdoğan, who has been crossing a lot of red lines, in order to signal that they haven't shut the door on Turkey just yet.
Commenting on the April 2017 constitutional referendum, Mr. Schulz had claimed that Mr. Erdoğan didn't represent Turkey. As a matter of fact, in his capacity as president of the European Parliament, he had remarked that Europe's counterpart was the government of Turkey as opposed to President Erdoğan. Echoing the same sentiment, Mrs. Merkel has recently told the German public that 50 percent of Turkey opposed the Turkish leader and had certain expectations from Germany.
Having presented herself as an advocate of dialogue, Mrs. Merkel made a particularly interesting statement on Sunday: "We will see whether it will be us or Turkey that shuts the door." The German chancellor's remarks suggest that bilateral relations will remain strained after the election.
Over the past two years, Germany has been the architect of the European Union's tense relationship with Turkey. And it is clearly no longer necessary to use Greek Cypriots or any other EU member as an excuse to indicate that Turkey won't be able to join the organization. Once a safe haven for radical-left groups, Germany now hosts PKK and Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) militants. As such, Berlin's problems with Ankara are starting to become a structural issue – despite certain shared economic interests. There is no doubt that the existing tensions could turn into a war of words if German politicians continue to target the Turkish president ahead of the 2019 elections in Turkey.
To be clear, European politicians will build their anti-Turkey discourse around German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel's suggestion that "Turkey will never join the EU with Erdoğan in power." Inevitably, they will have to explain who shut the door on Turkey's membership bid. What they desperately want is for Turkey to voluntarily withdraw its application. In other words, they hope that Mr. Erdoğan will grow tired of the anti-Turkey smear campaign in Europe and walk out of the membership negotiations.
Frankly, European governments haven't lived up to their responsibilities toward Turkey – a candidate country and a member of the Western alliance — since the Syrian civil war broke out. Especially since the July 15 coup attempt, they have not only refused to cooperate with Turkey against terrorist groups but also tried to meddle in Turkish politics and judicial proceedings. It is important to understand what's at stake here: President Erdoğan wants to transform Turkey's relationship with the West and, in particular, Europe – which has traditionally been unfair and unequal. Meanwhile, some German politicians encourage Turkey to shut the door on Europe by threatening economic sanctions. What they desperately want is for Mr. Erdoğan to publicly declare that Turkey has given up on EU membership – which Turkish officials continue to consider a strategic goal. If the Turkish president does not play ball, they will push the message that Mr. Erdoğan had turned his back on European values in order to be able to explain to the European public why they shut the door on Turkey.