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Page last updated at 12:16 GMT, Monday, 29 March 2010 13:16 UK

Ties strained as Merkel visits Turkey

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
There is little common ground between Chancellor Merkel and her hosts

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Istanbul

Official visits by heads of government are supposed to be tightly choreographed affairs, where every statement and gesture is finely tuned to give the impression of friendship and harmony.

All the more so when the visit is by an important ally and trading partner.

So what are we to make, then, of the verbal sparring that has taken place between the Turkish and German leaders on the eve of Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to Turkey?

Germany, along with France and some other EU countries, is sceptical about Turkey's suitability as an EU member. That is why, six years ago, Angela Merkel, then the opposition leader in Germany, put forward the concept of a "privileged partnership".

The idea was to offer Turkey integration with the EU in many areas, but to withhold full integration in areas like the EU budget, agricultural aid and voting rights.

She took the proposal to Turkey, where it was immediately rejected. Turkey went on to become an official candidate for full membership when it began formal accession negotiations in December 2004. In recent months, Mrs Merkel has said little about her concept.

Erdogan needs a first-class public relations adviser. What he proposes about schools is rubbish
Cengiz Aktar
Political commentator

Then, in interviews just before her departure for this week's official visit, she brought it up again. She said she believed Turkey could fulfil membership criteria in 27 or 28 of the 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire - the body of EU law - but should still only be offered a privileged partnership.

That has brought a predictably angry response from Turkish officials.

"In the EU there are candidate countries, there are negotiating countries, such as Turkey, and there are member countries," said Minister for European Affairs Egemen Bagis.

"Such a thing as privileged partnership does not exist, so we do not take that option seriously. At times I feel insulted for being offered something which does not exist."

'Clumsy'

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a keen football player in his youth, has accused Mrs Merkel of moving the goalposts just before a penalty kick.

"This is extremely clumsy of her," says political commentator Cengiz Aktar.

"She is not following her own brief. Her statements do not reflect the views of her government, or even her own party."

Flags of Turkey and the European Union are seen in front of a mosque in Istanbul, Turkey (file picture)
Turkey's progress towards the EU has been stuttering

Back in January, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle - the leader of Mrs Merkel's coalition partner - gave an unqualified pledge to stand by the commitment to full membership for Turkey made when accession negotiations began.

The issue is hardly an urgent one. Turkey has so far only managed to open negotiations on 12 of the 35 chapters. Eight have been frozen because of Turkey's refusal to recognise the government of Cyprus, an EU member since 2005, and open its ports to Cypriot ships.

That will not change without a peace agreement on the divided island - a prospect that looks set to become even more distant after an election next month in northern Cyprus, which is likely to install a more hardline leader for the Turkish community.

And Angela Merkel is not the only one raising battle standards before this visit. Prime Minister Erdogan has issued a demand of his own, for more Turkish schools to be established in Germany so that the nearly three million inhabitants of Turkish origin can be educated in their own language. That idea was quickly shot down by Mrs Merkel, as counter to her government's policy of encouraging immigrants to integrate into German society.

Mr Erdogan has described assimilation as "a crime against humanity".

"Erdogan needs a first-class public relations adviser", says Cengiz Aktar.

"What he proposes about schools is rubbish. Are we trying to create a second Turkey inside Germany? Do we want ghettos? Who would choose to send their children to such a school?"

Immigration fear

They will disagree, too, about visas. Turkey has asked for visa-free access to the EU for its citizens - a benefit that has already been offered to Montenegro and Serbia, neither of which are yet candidates for EU membership as Turkey is. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has accused the EU of double standards.

Mrs Merkel will stick to the official EU line, that such a deal for Turkey depends not only on the introduction of biometric passports, but also on better co-operation over the thousands of illegal immigrants into the EU via Turkey.

The subtext here is that Turkey's long borders with Iran, Syria and Georgia make it a natural channel for the huge flow of migrants hoping to reach the EU from further east.

They will also disagree about Iran's nuclear programme. The German chancellor will press Turkey, which is currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, to back tougher sanctions against Iran.

Mr Erdogan has made it clear he will not do so. He argues that confronting Iran is counter-productive and hypocritical, given Israel's presumed possession of nuclear weapons.

In fact, it is difficult to think of a subject on which these two political leaders will find any common ground. Trade perhaps; Germany is the biggest market for Turkish exports. They have deep historical ties.

Mrs Merkel and Mr Erdogan are scheduled to attend a concert on Tuesday evening given by Turkish and German musicians to commemorate the European Capital of Culture title shared this year by the cities of Istanbul and Essen. Perhaps they will both like the music.



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