Germany’s Merkel sees hurdles in way of improving ties with Turkish gov’t

German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım in Berlin with the hope of improving relations with Turkish government and for some positive steps on jailed German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel amid harsh reactions from German opposition circles. However, Deutsche Welle (DW) reported that there was little progress in evidence.

Addressing members of the press in Berlin on Thursday, Merkel said she saw many hurdles still in the way of normalization of German-Turkish relations. However, she said that “We want to intensify our contacts.”

There has been tension between the two countries over the past year, especially in light of increased powers acquired by Turkish autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan following a controversial referendum in 2017.

While Berlin claims six German citizens are being held in Turkey for political reasons, it was the case of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel which had attracted much of the attention ahead of the talks as it has been a major reason for diplomatic tension between the two countries. The correspondent for Die Welt in Turkey has been detained on terror charges for a year.

According to DW’s report, Merkel was asked about Yücel’s case and replied that she hoped for a fast and fair process. While Yücel’s case had been discussed in the meeting, there was no link between it and other issues under discussion, she said. “I said during the talks that we hope for a fast and constitutional (judicial) process for Deniz Yücel,” Merkel told journalists on Thursday.

The German leader also thanked Turkish efforts to shelter more than 3 million Syrian refugees and said that “the EU funding for Syrian refugees should be paid to Turkey as soon as possible.”

Yıldırım said that the Turkish courts had a lot of cases to hear following the attempted coup in July 2016 which had caused delays but added nothing further to his comments earlier in the week.  Yücel’s case was up to the Turkish courts, not the government, the prime minister claimed. “I hope that his trial will start soon and that it comes to a result.”

In an interview on ARD German television, Yıldırım had said of Yücel that “I hope that he will be released soon. I think there will be a development shortly.”

Yıldırım urged the cases such as Yücel’s should not affect bilateral relations and added that “We do not want these and similar matters to harm relations between Turkey and Germany.”

On the agenda for the meeting were Turkey-EU relations, bilateral trade and anti-Islam and ultra-nationalist movements in Europe. Yıldırım said the 3,5 million Turkish nationals living in Germany acted as an “important bridge” between the two countries.

German authorities in Cologne banned several rallies planned by a pro-Kurdish group, NAV-DEM, to coincide with Yıldırım’s scheduled meeting with Merkel. According to the Cologne police department, demonstrations planned by NAV-DEM for Thursday in Cologne and Leverkusen were prohibited because of the group’s affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Cologne police said in a statement that the likelihood of the demonstrators carrying PKK flags was a factor in their decision. Cologne police department told the group that future applications for events would be denied as well. NAV-DEM last month launched a campaign against Turkey’s ongoing Afrin operation and was planning to hold demonstrations across Germany.

Ayten Kaplan, the co-chair of NAV-DEM, said the ban could be Germany’s attempt to appease Turkey ahead of the Turkish prime minister’s visit. Turkish government has long criticised German authorities for tolerating PKK activities and called for Berlin to take stricter measures against the group.

The two countries have recently entered an era of fixing marred ties. The efforts of the foreign ministers of the two countries played a key role in the normalization process. While Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu hosted his counterpart Sigmar Gabriel in October in Antalya, Gabriel hosted Çavuşoğlu in Germany’s Goslar city to drink tea together in Turkish style. Additionally, President Erdoğan has expressed intent to invite Merkel to Turkey or travel to Germany once the German government is formed.

However, ahead of the talks, Germany’s Left and Green party deputies have slammed Germany’s Turkey policy ahead of Yıldırım’s visit to Berlin. They demand a tougher stance in the face of human rights violations.

Green politician Cem Özdemir had criticised in a Tweet that what he saw as an overly-friendly approach to Turkish government and called for press freedom, democracy and the rule of law to be restored in Turkey before relations with Germany were normalised.

In an interview with German public radio ahead of Yıldırım’s visit to Berlin on Thursday, Özdemir urged Merkel to stop “cuddling” with Turkish government, given Ankara’s crackdown on dissenters, journalists and activists.

Özdemir, who has Turkish roots and has been a staunch critic of President Erdoğan for years, claimed that Berlin had “no clear Turkey policy” and that the latest coalition agreement made barely any mention of human rights violations and how to deal with them.

He said Ankara should not receive any “economic assistance” until German journalist Deniz Yücel was freed. And even then, he stressed, “all would not be well in Turkey.” Özdemir also urged Merkel to talk to Yıldırım about the controversial offensive against the Kurdish YPG in Syria’s Afrin .

Left party parliamentary group leader Sahra Wagenknecht also tweeted that Merkel should not “cozy up” to Erdoğan and his government given the “catastrophic human rights situation” and the “war in Syria against the Kurds.” She also called for EU accession talks and weapons exports to Turkey to be stopped.

Özdemir and Wagenknecht called for Yücel to be freed without concessions. “Everything else would be a slap in the face of Deniz Yücel, who explicitly said he wouldn’t want to be part of any dubious exchange deals,” Özdemir told German news agency DPA.

Wagenknecht told DPA that it was “unbearable that Yücel has been detained for a year now and still Turkey continues to receive millions of euros worth of loans from Europe.”

The recent release of fellow journalist Meşale Tolu and activist Peter Steudtner had eased tensions with Ankara, but according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), there are more journalists are in jail in Turkey than in any other country.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by the SCF has showed that 245 journalists and media workers are in jails as of January 24, 2018, most in pre-trial detention languishing in notorious Turkish prisons without even a conviction. Of those in Turkish prisons, 218 are arrested pending trial, only 27 journalists remain convicted and serving time in Turkish prisons. An outstanding detention warrants remain for 140 journalists who live in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down more than 180 media outlets after the controversial coup attempt.

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