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“We have to think about tomorrow, not just today. For there’s always a day after.”

Interview with Foreign Minister Gabriel on the impact of the constitutional referendum on German-Turkish relations. Published by Bild Online on 17 April 2017:

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The majority of Turks have voted for a presidential system in line with the proposals put forward by President Erdogan. Are you disappointed?

We’ve taken note of the very close decision by voters in Turkey. What matters is what President Erdogan does now. I hope he will act responsibly following this outcome. If Mr Erdogan wants to be a President for everyone in Turkey, he will have to make overtures to his adversaries instead of marginalising them. That would mean the Turkish authorities investigating all complaints on the conduct of the referendum and taking the findings of the OSCE election observers seriously.

What should happen now?

Certainly not yet another prolongation of the state of emergency and massive restrictions on constitutional rights. The polarisation of society, the friend‑or‑foe mentality, has to be overcome. That includes tolerating criticism and no longer silencing it. The wave of persecutions, arrests and dismissals after the – thankfully failed – attempted coup last summer has left deep wounds. The flaring up once more of the conflict in the south‑east and the threats posed by Islamist terrorism are huge challenges.

What message does this decision send to Europe, as well as to NATO?

We don’t know what Erdogan’s masterplan is. Does he want to take Turkey even further away from the West and Europe? Or will he realise following this confrontational and bitter campaign how important Europe and European values are for Turkey’s further development, in the political sphere as well as for his country’s economic and social development? Anyway, I’ve stayed in close contact with my Turkish counterpart, even during the truly difficult last few months. And I’ve said to him time and again: don’t close the door on Europe! It’s in the interests of us all to remain engaged in dialogue and to regard each other as partners, on both sides.

How should Germany react to the decision?

First of all, we should keep a cool head and act prudently. For there will be many making hasty and – mostly verbal – radical suggestions, for example on the immediate end to all talks with Turkey. Not infrequently, such sweeping demands stem more from a need to make an impact on domestic politics than from careful reflection on how to deal sensibly with Europe’s neighbour while, at the same time, making our views quite clear. However, two things are important to us: Turkey remains a large neighbour which we didn’t even exclude from NATO during the military dictatorship in the early eighties as we were keen not to drive it into the arms of the Soviet Union. Today we want to keep Turkey with us and not to force it into isolation on the international scene or even push it towards Russia. Then as now it is true to say that we have to think about tomorrow, not just today. For there’s always a day after.

And what should we do until then?

In its own interest, Turkey shouldn’t distance itself even further from Europe. We’ll now make very clear yet again our expectations regarding cooperation in a region which is also important for Europe’s security as well as regarding adherence to European values. What’s more, we won’t allow a division within German society. The campaign was extremely heated, also in Germany, and polarised those people here who have their roots in Turkey. We will vigorously combat any efforts to politically radicalise or spy on people in our country. 

Is EU membership now off the table for good?

It’s up to Turkey. No decisions are due to be taken for quite some time. Accession wouldn’t be possible right now anyway. However, I know so many people in Turkey for whom seeing their country in the European Union one day is a huge dream. The widespread anger with Europe in Turkey is partly due to disappointed hopes. Erdogan played ruthlessly with these sentiments during the campaign. However, we’ve also made mistakes during the last ten years. But one thing is clear: the introduction of the death penalty would mean the end of the dream of a future in Europe. I hope it doesn’t come to that. It’s all the more important to maintain the dialogue and to keep the channels of communication open – no matter how difficult that is at present, and indeed will probably remain.

How do you see Erdogan – is he still a democratic President or has he already turned into a dictator?

Erdogan is the elected President of Turkey. With regard to the changes to the constitution, most of them won’t be carried out immediately but, rather, after the next elections. So there’s still time to think long and hard about how to proceed. What matters to us is what happens with the state of emergency, how the AKP treats its political opponents, how the Kurdish conflict is dealt with. Even the day after the referendum, it’s still true to say that Turkey stands at a crossroads. 

... and what will happen now to Deniz Yücel?

Deniz Yücel’s case has gained great symbolic value. He’s a German‑Turkish correspondent of a German newspaper who has been in prison for more than two months now, an unnecessary and completely disproportionate treatment, as the result of criminal charges – charges which we find incomprehensible – connected to his work as a journalist. As long as this situation remains, the case will stay on the political agenda and place a strain on our bilateral relations. The first visit to Deniz Yücel in prison two weeks ago was important, but not enough. We want Deniz Yücel to receive regular consular assistance and we expect more, namely his swift release. Now more than ever!

Interview conducted by Rolf Kleine

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