Turkish President shows a more conciliatory tone

ANKARA: The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, addresses Turkish members of the parliament during the opening of the second legislative year of the 27th Term of Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) in Ankara. —AFP

ISTANBUL: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan showed a more conciliatory tone on a hugely sensitive visit to Germany but both sides still have daunting task ahead to rebuild relations and trust battered by a succession of disputes. Erdogan's full state visit came just one-and-a-half-months after Turkey endured a currency crisis which saw the lira plunge some 40 percent in a spat with the United States that highlighted the importance of Ankara's economic ties to Europe.

Turkey's relations with Germany-and other key EU states-had hit historic lows in the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup as Berlin took issue with the scope of the remorseless crackdown that also caught up German nationals. Interpretations of the controversial visit varied wildly in Turkey and Germany, with Erdogan boasting it was a hugely successful but the conservative German press complaining the red carpet treatment brought nothing but hassle and expense.

Erdogan on Saturday in Cologne also inaugurated a new mosque-seen as a symbol of the integration of three million people of Turkish origin in Germany-although the resonance was undermined by the absence of key German politicians. "At a critical period, we made an extremely productive, extremely successful visit," Erdogan said.

'Repair the damage'

Erdogan negotiated a potentially thorny news conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel without any major provocation, smiling when security bundled out a journalist wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "freedom for journalists". "Both sides are willing to move forward, out of the stalemate," Ilke Toygur, analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid said. She said Turkey was particularly keen on "repairing the damage" after Ankara's relations with Washington entered a state of crisis over the summer, but Germany and Europe wanted to see "concrete steps" to relieve tensions.

While a resumption of accession negotiations for Turkey's moribund EU bid was not on the table, some improvements-such as a modernization of a Customs Union-could take place after European parliament elections in May 2019, said Toygur. Merkel also announced that she planned to take part later in October in an Istanbul summit hosted by Erdogan on the crisis in Syria which also aims to include French President Emmanuel Macron and Russia's Vladimir Putin. "The visit's first achievement is that it took place. It therefore marks the beginning of a road towards detente," Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a former EU ambassador to Turkey, told AFP.

'Arduous road'

Yet it will take more to overcome months of tensions and the magnitude of the challenge was underlined in a strikingly frank speech by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier as he hosted Erdogan for the welcoming state dinner late Thursday. Dispensing with the usual diplomatic pleasantries, Steinmeier expressed concern over Germans, union activists, lawyers, journalists and politicians jailed in Turkey, telling Erdogan: "We cannot simply gloss over this issue."

Steinmeier said the "strong emotions" the visit aroused in Germany were a reflection of tensions that have yet to be overcome and warned: "A single visit is not enough to restore normality." Erdogan hit back at Steinmeier in Turkish media, saying the president's comments were "not very appropriate" and adding Turkey would not behave the same towards "a guest".

Almut Moller, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the outcome was "far away from a detente" with the deterioration in Turkey's rule of law and human rights still of "great concern to Berlin". But she told AFP: "Germany has no interest in losing Turkey as a partner to work with" and wanted to see Ankara overcome its economic difficulties. Pierini said the visit "illustrated sharp divergences on rule of law, especially freedom of speech and freedom of dissent. "It will be a long and arduous road toward normalization," he said.

For many in Germany, the opening of the Cologne mosque was a missed opportunity, with the Turkish president preferring the chance to bask in the limelight rather than promoting cross-community harmony. The mosque opening "left behind a pile of shards in the German-Turkish relationship which can only be swept up with a lot of effort," said the president of the Turkish Community in Germany (TGD), Gokay Sofuoglu. But he expressed satisfaction that "both sides made a cautious attempt at rapprochement."- AFP