With the German election now officially set for September 18, the battle is starting to heat up.
Opinion polls continue to show that it will be extremely tight between a majority for a centre-right coalition between CDU/CSU and liberal FDP and a situation in which a great coalition with the SPD would be the only viable option.
Suddenly, CDU/CSU has decided to insert the issue of Turkey in the campaign.
In a letter today to the centre-rights heads of government in the European Union, Angela Merkel and Edmund Stoiber argue that the mandate for negotiations with Turkey should include also the option of what they call a priviliged partnership. In their opinion, the inclusion of Turkey in the Union would overburden it in political, economic and social terms.
You can look at this letter in different ways.
One is obvious. It could be seen as a blatant attempt to play on the anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim sentiments that are undoubtedly there in significant parts of the German electorate. The nuances in the letter are certain to be lost in the more simplistic debates around the ”stammtisch” in the local hang-outs around the country.
Another is to look at these nuances. The letter does not oppose the opening of accession negotiations with Turkey on October 3rd. Its key demand is that in addition to the aim of membership of these talks there should be another option included.
The one way or the other there is likely to be some reference of some sort to some such other option. The informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Britain at the end of next week is likely to discuss some phrases along those lines.
But what it will mean remains unclear in the extreme.
While membership is well defined by the different articles of the different treaties as well as the commitment in all the so called aquis communitaire, no one really knows what the so called privilgied partnership means.
It can be argued that this is what Turkey already has. It is part of the customs union of the Union, and is thus more closely integrated than Switzerland, although less than Norway. Through the so called Berlin Plus arrangement between the EU and NATO, it is closely affiliated with much of the operations of the common security and defence policy.
The more priviligied a partnership becomes, the more complex will it be to sort out all the issues of co-decisionmaking. As the example of Norway shows, these issues are nearly impossible to sort out, and one tends to end up in a situation where the country in question is far more of a satellite than a partner.
A negotiation has to be between two parties. It remains to be seen if Turkey is interested in negotiating something that no one really seems able to define and which seems designed more to keep them out than to help them in.
I consider that less than likely.
In addition, the letter suddenly raises the Cyprus issue in a way that is just uninformed and wrong. Again, one gets the impression that its authors are just searching for ways to keep Turkey out.
I belong to those that hope that there will be a clear majority for a new government in Berlin. As Chancellor Schröder explained himself as he asked the Bundestag to vote his government out, the red-green majority has lost the ability to reform and to govern.
But I say this with the great reservation that there is a clear risk that such a new government in Berlin will mess up a most important part of the European efforts to create peace, stability and prosperity in our part of the world.