German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has recently interrupted his holiday to respond to Ankara’s jailing of a German human rights activist. He also used the occasion to warn German tourists about the dangers of visiting Turkey and said to German businesses to rethink their potential investments in the country that is increasingly teetering on the brink of the rule of law and human rights protection. This move underlined Berlin’s new policy towards Turkey and reaffirmed Germany’s standing as an economic power.
Germany’s apt response did not come by surprise but it marked a break from Berlin’s traditional diplomatic style. Some domestic voices also suggest that Mr. Gabriel’s move was a political calculation in anticipation of the parliamentary elections at the end of September. His party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), can only benefit from standing up to Ankara, who has alienated Germans with the recent wave of authoritarianism, Islamist influences, and disrespectful allusions to the Holocaust.
Despite these allegations, Germany’s fresh approach to Turkey predates Mr. Gabriel. During the euro crisis, Berlin deployed its economic means within Europe but when it comes to dealing with countries like Russia, China, Turkey but also the United States, Germany has been using its economic power to advance its strategic goals. For example, following the Russian annexation of Crimea, the West’s response was not led by the United States, but by Germany. It was Berlin that pursued spearheaded diplomacy with Russia and Ukraine to de-escalate the conflict. Germany had also persuaded the rest of the EU to introduce unprecedentedly harsh restrictive measures on Moscow to deter any further aggression.
Germany was also leading the talks on the migrant deal with Turkey to reduce the flow of migrants coming from the Middle East to Europe, thus essentially revamping the EU-Turkey relationship. Instead of maintaining that Turkey still is a viable candidate for EU membership, Berlin forged a more realistic strategic bilateral relationship. Both sides can still work on advancing common interests but the EU keeps sufficient space to raise objections to Ankara’s increasing authoritarianism.
Germany’s new approach to Turkey suggests that the country is finally escaping from its two complexes that have for long constrained German strategic thinking. The first one is the psycho-historical complex, which have forced German leaders to play only a supportive rule in foreign policy to reassure others about their intentions.
The second complex involves the use of military force that has been a great taboo in its foreign policy planning and making since the Second World War. Germany still spends only 1.2% of its GDP on defense, which stands in stark contrast with the United States that spends about 3.3% of its GDP, according to the World Bank data. Germany’s decision to bring its massive export-led economy to the world stage is an important development and Sigmar Gabriel’s latest response to Turkey is a decisive step in that direction.
‘Germany’s New Power of the Purse’ – Commentary by Mark Leonard – European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).