The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opened a new Embassy in Berlin this week and used that platform to assert not only Germany’s importance for Turkey, but also to underscore Turkey’s changing perception of itself and its options.

Standing in front of the largest Turkish Embassy in the world, Erdoğan spoke to Germans and the roughly 2.5 million people of Turkish descent living in Germany by saying that the Embassy is a symbol of the importance Turkey attaches to relations with Germany. Measured in economic terms, the facts underline his point. Germany is not only Turkey’s most important trading partner, but it is also the biggest foreign investor in Turkey. The attractiveness of an economy growing at a rapid pace of 8% over many years − and in spite of the recent global economic crisis − speaks for itself, along with the enormous amount of German capital flowing into Turkey and the almost five million German tourists in Turkey annually. Added to that mix is the presence of the world’s largest community of Turks outside of Turkey.

Erdoğan also came to Berlin to proclaim that his fellow 75 million Turks want to be a full member of the European Union − despite the slow paced negotiating and multiple signals that many Europeans are not interested in that idea. In fact, the one Erdoğan came to visit − Chancellor Merkel − has told him before that a different kind of connection with the EU might be better for Turkey, a formula called “privileged partnership” that is something less than full membership.

As a country which presents itself as a healthy democracy and has been a member of NATO for decades, privileged partnership smacks of second class status. Merkel affirmed that the negotiations for membership would proceed, but Erdoğan has nevertheless placed a ten year limit of Turkish patience before it would run out in 2023 − the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic. Erdoğan sees prejudicial doubts in Berlin and elsewhere in Europe about his Muslim-majority nation as a future EU member.  And there is undoubtedly something to that suspicion.

Yet, the obstacles to full membership are also to be found in the differences between Turkey and the EU over the Turkish refusal to recognize one of the 27 members of the Union – Cyprus − given the ongoing feud with Greece over that island. Furthermore, there are unresolved questions revolving around the many and complicated dimensions of the chapters contained in the so called acquis communautaire, which all members of the EU must fulfill to qualify for membership. Crackdowns on the media, along with the arrests of an enormous number of journalists critical of Erdoğan and accusations of other human rights violations, continue to shadow negotiations between Turkey and the EU.

Erdoğan was also speaking to over 1.5 million people in Germany who are legally able to vote in Turkish elections according to Turkish law. Since he wants to be President of Turkey after his term as Prime Minister runs out next year, a bit of campaigning was not going to hurt while he was in Germany among the largest block of Turks outside of Turkey.

German-Turkish relations have a unique history going back centuries. Yet it is a combination of recent developments which are changing the equation between these two important countries. With a rising profile in its region, Turkey has been reassessing its options on the world stage. Turkey is placed strategically within a changing geopolitical framework that lies between Europe, Russia and the Middle East. It is a member of NATO with an enormous military infrastructure; it is  included in the G20 club, while also a friend of Iran with whom it also competes for regional influence; it has a special, if currently tense, relationship with Israel, while also maintaining relations in Ramallah. As the largest land bridge in the world, it offers a stable platform for a nexus of water, oil and gas transit supplies from all and to all of the nations of the region in which it sits. And finally, Turkey offers itself as a model to the arc of the Arab states searching for a viable form of an Islamist democracy. However, that model comes with serious  political and judicial flaws  yet to be resolved

Germany, on the other hand, has evolved during the last two decades into the strongest economy in Europe with an enormous influence on the course of the European Union. In the last decade alone, Germany has been both the beneficiary and the champion of the euro. The current crisis of that currency will in no small measure be solved by Germany’s decision to save it. In doing so, the next phase of the European Union’s evolution as an integrating entity will be shaped significantly in Berlin as well as in Brussels. Germany’s leadership is not forged with an army of soldiers, but rather by a network of relationships and interlocking dependencies and institutions which it both helps craft and finance.

In both their respective regions, Turkey and Germany have sought to exercise influence as economic forces projecting soft power in multiple directions. Germany has been in an environment much to its great advantage, as it has been able to remain stable, peaceful and affluent. Turkey lives in a much more volatile neighborhood, bordering on a fragile Iraq with the explosive Kurdish issues unresolved on either side if the border; on Syria now engulfed in civil war that has left over one hundred thousand Syrian refugees in Turkish camps; and on Iran with which it has a highly complicated relationship. It also sits across from the Caucuses in which more unpredictability is located.

It is partly in light of that precarious neighborhood that many Germans see EU membership for Turkey as unrealistic. Others argue that what happens in Turkey is of direct importance to Europe, and to Germany in particular, and that EU membership is a useful tool with which Turkey can be guided in a positive direction − as it has been for other recent members of the EU. Those who reject that argument say that such an approach cannot overcome some of the barriers to Turkish conformity with the Acquis Communautaire. Critics also argue that a country like Turkey, which will top 100 million citizens by 2050, is a wholly different category than the smaller states seeking membership.

The Turkish relationship with the EU will continue to be a rocky road of difficult negotiations. Chancellor Merkel affirmed that the process will continue, and she plans to visit Turkey early next year to presumably repeat that message. Erdogan knows his connection with Berlin is vital if that negotiation process has any outlook for success.

While the EU struggles with its future, Turkey, personified by Erdoğan, appears to be rethinking its options. For now, Turkey is saying that it wants to claim what it sees as its rightful seat at the European table. How long that claim will stay in place or how wide the EU door stays open will be determined by developments both in the European Union and within and around Turkey in the next few years.

As it has for centuries, Turkey will see itself as a key player with its own range of options in a region which is being transformed dramatically in every direction. Will it want or need EU membership?  And will the EU want or need Turkey as a member? Privileged or not, what will partnerships mean in the future?  Turkey has some important cards to play in answering those questions. Depending on how things play out in Syria, a post Assad government could be a closer Turkish ally, leaving Iran without anyone in the region interested in partnership with Teheran. If Turkey treads carefully, relations with the Arab states to its south could be developed further. Turkish interest in the Balkans remains serious as well.

Like Germany, Turkey cannot afford to ignore its history as it plots its future path. How that path will connect with Europe − and the other way around − remains uncertain. But what is not uncertain is that they will connect in an ongoing tradition going back centuries.

Further information of the topic of Turkish-European relations:

AICGS Policy Report 18: Changing Parameters in U.S.-German Turkish Relations, by Omer Taspinar