50 Years After: What Germany and Turkey Need is a State Treaty

Rana Deep Islam


Dr. Rana Deep Islam works as a Business Development Executive in the Government and Public Sector for Germany, Switzerland, and Austria at EY, one of the largest professional services firms. Prior to joining EY he worked as a campaign manager for the SPD’s chancellor candidate Martin Schulz during his campaign in the run-up to the German federal elections in 2017. Prior to that, he was in charge of the management of the European project portfolio at Stiftung Mercator and gained further professional experience at the European Parliament, the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). Rana holds an MA from the College of Europe in Bruges and a PhD from the University of Erlangen-Nurnberg. In his PhD studies, Rana compared the Middle East politics of the EU and Turkey. He was a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow in May and June 2011. Rana publishes frequently in academic journals and media on European affairs and German politics.

When listening to the many key note speeches and commentaries currently delivered by German and Turkish politicians, one gets the impression that today’s state of bilateral relations between those two countries cannot be better off. In the context of the 50th anniversary of the recruitment agreement, representatives of the Ankara and Berlin governments try to top themselves in glorifying Turkish-German bonds as a success story. On October 30, 1961, the two states agreed to contractually fix the migration of Turkish workers (guest workers as they were called at first) in order to feed the demand for human resources needed to keep up Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder.

The Glass of Integration: Half Full or Half Empty?

As a matter of fact, this inflow of Turkish citizens turned out to be not a preliminary measure, but the beginning of a permanent migration process, which resulted in a share of three million German habitants who are ethnically of Turkish descent. It is out of the question that the Turkish footprint made German society more tolerant, more cosmopolitan, and more diverse than it had been before. The most illustrative examples are people like the German-Turkish film director Fatih Akın or midfielder Mesut Özil, the latter breeding the hopes and expectations of a proud soccer nation to win next year’s European Football Championship.

Besides those, along with many more beacons of integration, Germany’s political discourses are still entailing wide ranging stereotypes and culturally determined prejudices about the ostensible cleavages between “(Christian) Germans” and “(Muslim) Turks.” The inevitable fact that both groups create one nation, one people, and one common destiny, irrespective of ethnically driven differences, is a deeper insight which still needs to be embraced by politics and society. It reminds of a Pavlovian response when leading politicians of the conservative spectrum try to depict Arab and Turkish teenagers to be culturally more inclined to juvenile delinquency. It is true that a higher share of perpetrators have a migration background. However, it is also valid that an above average number of people with a migration background live in economically deprived conditions. So why not see the forest for the trees and finally view crime and the many other challenges facing German-Turkish cohabitation as socially constructed phenomena? Not only conservatives, but also parts of the left, seem to be stuck in such old-fashioned thinking, which relies on cultural stigmatization. This is especially true for the social democrats, who recently needed to admit that large parts of their electorate cannot identify with the principles of multiculturalism.

Through the Glasses of International Affairs

In addition, it needs to be said that the seemingly domestic dimension of the German-Turkish narrative implies a significant foreign policy perspective. At first it was the recruitment agreement which was of international and European relevance. The United States displayed a distinguished interest in fostering the economic stabilization of Turkey. As a NATO member, the country was of imminent strategic importance during the heights of the Cold War. Washington, therefore, lobbied in favor of the contract which guaranteed the inflow of funds and assets back to Turkey. Even more so, the Turkish-German bilateral accord served as inspiration, as well as a model, for the Ankara Agreement – an association agreement, one of the first of its kind, signed in 1963 between the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC), and the Turkish Republic. This treaty laid the foundation for a) stronger economic cooperation, b) a customs union, c) freedom of movement, and even d) the full-fledged integration of Turkey into the EEC. In this logic, the boosting of the German economy by Turkish workers should be transferred onto a European level.

If we move forward in time, we see that the German-Turkish everyday life is still put in context with Ankara’s European vocation. Sometimes this happens with a distinguished positive connotation. After the EU Helsinki Council in 1999, which decided to officially accept Turkey’s status as a candidate country, then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder declared to the German Parliament: “I am sure you will agree when I say, that the Helsinki accord is of major importance for the coexistence of all people in Germany, no matter of what origin they are. For those people living in the midst of our society, and who are of Turkish descent, it is crucial to know whether their father’s country can hope for a democratic future as part of the European Union.” However, such logic applies the other way around more often. Experts, politicians, and parts of the general public deduce their rejection of Turkish EU membership from the ostensible difficulties of German-Turkish integration on a societal level. According to such thinking, the socio-economic conditions in problematic urban neighborhoods like Cologne-Mühlheim and Berlin-Kreuzberg seem to be only a stone’s throw away from European politics in Brussels. Against this backdrop, “Turks” seem to be different by mentality, culture and religion, and can therefore never be successfully integrated into a political European Union that rests on the foundations of Christianity and a Western oriented lifestyle. Significantly, Germany turned from a staunch promoter of Turkish EU-membership to one of the strongest stumbling blocks in favor of a so called privileged partnership – a policy concept which had never been defined, but still regularly brought into the discourse by the Merkel government.

Such a confronting policy, which causes disappointment and anger on the side of Turkish bipartisan politics, does not mirror political realities. Ankara is about to enlarge its regional leverage based on the diverse opposition movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or Syria that refer to the Turkish secularism as a source of inspiration for their own path of development. Furthermore, Turkish economic growth is constantly increasing by eight to ten percent on average – growth rates which are exceeding the bare imagination of EU finance ministers.

A Burning Glass: The Imperative for a German-Turkish State Treaty

European decision makers increasingly realize that, as open-ended as the Turkey-EU accession process might be, it is imperative to institutionally intensify the relations between Ankara and Brussels now in order to create synergies, as well as to enlarge the EU’s scope of influence. Germany needs to get into the driver’s seat for implementing such a process. Irrespective of the many difficulties in the relationship between Berlin and Ankara, leaders of both countries meet on a regular basis in order to discuss matters of domestic and international outreach. Now is the time to also institutionalize bilateral affairs fifty years after the signing of the recruitment agreement. Back then, the hierarchy was obvious: Germany wanted to make use of skilled and cheap labor force. Today, both countries finally need to meet on equal footing.

The Federal Republic can rely on best practice experiences when it comes to managing unique relations with special partners, such as France, Poland, and Russia. For example, the Elysé-Treaty with Paris set the pattern for bilateral understanding, trust-building measures, and politically respective cultural exchange. After half a century of contemporary common history between Turkey and Germany, it is legitimate and necessary to elevate their relationship on a higher level. A state treaty entails three dimensions:

  1. The economic potential between Germany and Turkey is not exhausted yet. This is especially true with regard to visa regulations, where Turkish business men are still discriminated.
  2. Leaders of both countries need to come together biannually. Furthermore, joint cabinet sessions should be held. The ups and downs of everyday politics and their negative ramifications will then have only limited effect on the structural and long term pattern of German-Turkish relations.
  3. Rapprochement also needs to be reflected by an intense cooperation on a people-to-people basis. Student exchange programs, cultural cooperation, common meeting places and face-to-face encounters will also appeal on a societal level and could finally reduce prejudices, stereotypes, processes of ‘othering’ and stigmatization on both sides.

Finally, such a treaty implies a dual character. First, it can help to improve the understanding of German-Turkish people within Germany, as it will substitute the old story of “you” and “we” through a new feeling of cultural affiliation and emotional closeness. Second, and from a European perspective, Germany can become what it had been for many decades before: A committed advocate of Turkey in Europe. Besides the pro and con dichotomy of Turkish EU membership, key challenges need to be managed now, e.g. the Cyprus dead lock, the situation of human and civil rights in Turkey, energy affairs, foreign and security policy, the common market and many more. The list of homework cannot be exhaustingly described at this point. However, Germany and Turkey are well advised to go this way, hand in hand, together. A state treaty would be a tool to tie two natural allies, both of which cannot afford to ignore the other side for the sake of European and international affairs.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.