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The freeze sets an important precedent of linking arms exports to human rights, says TRNN’s Shir Hever

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The increasingly repressive administration of Recep Erdoğan in Turkey is affecting its relations with its most important trading partner in Europe: Germany. Relations have been deteriorating particularly after Turkey arrested 10 activists, including Germans, a few weeks ago as a part of a wider security crackdown since last year’s failed military coup. Further, German politicians have been denied access to visit German troops stationed on the Syrian/Turkish border and this week Germany published a travel warning to Turkey for its citizens and suspended all arms shipments to Turkey. A year after the failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016, repressive policies in Turkey have included mass layoffs of public employees, especially from schools and universities, over a dozen media outlets, mass arrests, and a referendum which guaranteed President Erdoğan excessive executive powers. Most recently, Turks have been arrested for wearing shirts similar to one which was worn by a suspect in the coup attempt trial taking place. Stopping arms shipments to Turkey is a significant statement by Germany as it is one of the world’s largest arms exporters. President Erdoğan, however, appears more concerned with losing investments by Germany companies and lashed out against German policies. Let’s listen. Translator: I strongly condemn the Germany Economy Minister’s baseless comments aimed at startling and disturbing companies investing in our country with indirect messages. The German government harbors Turkish terrorists in their country must first give an account for this. Why do the terrorists fleeing Turkey hide in Germany? How will they explain the financial support given to those people there? Germany must pull itself together. They should know they can never scare us with these threats. They should know that. If their judiciary is independent, ours is more independent than theirs. SHARMINI PERIES: On to talk about this with me today is Shir Hever. Shir is our Real News correspondent in Heidelberg, Germany. I thank you so much for joining us, Shir. SHIR HEVER: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: So, Shir, Germany and Turkey are closely tied together economically. Those relations actually preceded the establishment of the European Union but the European Union has changed the nature of these relations. What is the basis of the strong ties between the two countries, particularly economic? SHIR HEVER: Well, the relations go way back in fact, before the First World War. But if we want to talk about the modern relations, because both of these countries have undergone significant political changes in the middle of the 20th century, then actually when Germany was partitioned between West Germany and East Germany, part of the policy of West Germany, in order to rebuild its economy after the Second World War and to outpace East Germany, was to import large numbers of guest workers from Turkey. Many of these people stayed in Germany and many of them continued to hold onto their Turkish passports. So, in fact, this has become the largest minority group within Germany, people of Turkish descent. They have contributed tremendously to the economic success of Germany and their remittances to Turkey have also influenced the Turkish economy quite a lot. The European Union, however, when that started, that changed the relations quite a lot because now Germany could not have direct relations with Turkey without involving the entire European Union. Also, the European Union was established after Germany was re-unified. The re-unification of East and West Germany has also changed the German economy quite a lot. I think it’s interesting now to hear the Germany Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, accusing Turkey of reminding him of East Germany because anyone who knows this Finance Minister knows that, for him, East Germany is the worst thing that you can have. He’s a rampant capitalist and, as Minister of Finance, he did everything he could in order to destroy remnants of the socialist regime in East Germany. SHARMINI PERIES: And, also, Schäuble is the person who’s done most of the negotiations on behalf of Germany in relation to Greece, which he’s also holding up as an example of what’s possible if Turkey doesn’t behave. SHIR HEVER: Yeah, and actually it was mentioned several times when Schäuble was cracking down on Greece with quite a lot of cruelty that he is doing the same thing that he did to East Germany to Greece, so now making the statement towards Turkey is a direct threat to destroy the Turkish economy. Not that I think that Germany has that ability to destroy the German economy but Turkey does have this agreement with the European Union to receive funding from the European Union in exchange for holding refugees from Syria mostly within Turkey and rehabilitating them there and providing them with services within Turkey. And the right-wing movements in Europe and also in Germany, especially the extreme right, are very concerned that, if Turkey will stop abiding by this agreement, then Europe will be flooded by refugees. SHARMINI PERIES: And, Shir, what can you tell us about the role of the German arms industry. As I mentioned in the intro, it is one of the largest in the world. Are German corporations just going to accept losing the Turkish market in this way and then what enables Germany to actually be able to do this, sanction Turkey in this way? SHIR HEVER: The German arms industry is indeed very large but the rules regarding how it is regulated were established actually by the Allied occupying powers after the World War II. The Allied occupying powers, the capitalist ones, so that would be the United States, Britain, and France, decided that West Germany should have a strong arms industry in order to rebuild its military on the border of the Soviet Union but that all of these companies have to be privately owned with very strong government regulation. This kind of system actually prevented the establishment of what we see in many other countries, especially the United States but also Israel, the establishment of a military-industrial complex where the interests of the military corporations can dictate government policy. In Germany, officially the government has a lot of influence and a lot of say about how the arms industry is allowed to handle itself. You asked about how is it possible for the German government to deny shipments. Actually, German law already says that German companies are not allowed to sell weapons to conflict areas but biggest customers of the German arms industry are actually Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Britain, and Israel, so these are all countries that are using German weapons in conflict areas. The law is being constantly violated. In the case of Turkey, they’re just implementing a law that already exists. SHARMINI PERIES: And so, if these are the main purchasers, buyers of German arms, will Germany also suspend arm sales with these countries given they’re also in conflict zones? SHIR HEVER: Here again, we see we have the interests of the arms industry in mind and, of course, the arms industry doesn’t want to lose those businesses and the German government doesn’t want to see exports reduced but it’s a very controversial issue in the German political sphere. One very large purchaser, customer of German of arms is Israel and actually Germany and specifically the German arms company ThyssenKrupp is suspending a massive arms deal with Israel worth almost 2 billion Euros because of a corruption case, because there are severe indications that this arms deal involved bribes to senior Israeli officials, possibly even the Prime Minister. ThyssenKrupp said that if that would be proven or the suspicions would be strong enough, they would suspend the deal. I think that the case of Israel is somewhat of a special case because German arms companies including ThyssenKrupp had no problem selling weapons even under heavy suspicions of corruption to countries like Greece but when it comes to Israel they don’t want to be accused of jeopardizing the very special relationship between Germany and Israel and so they decided to suspend the deal until further notice. SHARMINI PERIES: Shir, the relations between Turkey and Germany are particularly interesting because they’re both members of NATO and but Turkey has been taking a sidestep these days. Large investments of its own in the arms industry has been made and, unusually for a NATO member, Turkey has also decided to buy Russian weapons as well. What does all this tell us about Turkey’s intentions towards NATO? SHIR HEVER: So, when Donald Trump was a presidential candidate and he said that NATO is unfair because the member states need to pay more to the United States in exchange for protection, I think he got it completely wrong, completely upside-down, actually. NATO is not a scheme where states pay the United States to be protected but actually, in order to become members of NATO, these countries have to buy American weapons and so they’re increasing the profits of the US military industry. When it comes to the issue of protection, then the United States does not always come to the rescue of NATO members when they’re facing security threats. For that reason, both Germany and Turkey are somewhat reluctant members of NATO. They have very strong debates internally whether they should remain in NATO or not, for different reasons. In the case of Turkey, they remember very strongly that, in 2010, when a non-NATO member attacked a Turkish civilian ship and killed nine Turkish citizens, that was Israel attacking the Mavi Marmara, NATO did not come to the aid of Turkey and Turkey was left to deal with this on its own. Eventually Turkey did succeed to get the Israeli government to issue an apology and pay compensations, but it was with no help from NATO. So what Turkey is now doing is developing directions towards its arms industry with non-NATO members and that is very significant because it also has a lot to do with the kind of weapons that are being produced and traded. If they buy weapons from Germany, then those weapons are compatible with other NATO technology, for example, United States weaponry. But when Turkey starts to buy Russian weapons, which are not compatible, and start to produce its own weaponry and sell it, then that means that they’re distancing themselves somewhat from NATO. SHARMINI PERIES: Interesting. And also, President Erdoğan has accused Germany of fanning the flames to win votes in the upcoming election in Germany this September. Is this kind of move against Turkey popular and I’m keeping in mind the fact that you mentioned that there is a large Turkish population in Germany? Apparently there’s almost three million Turkish ethnic minorities there. How does all this play out in the upcoming elections and is Erdoğan correct? SHIR HEVER: Indeed, there are people of Turkish descent in Germany and some of them actually continue to wave the Turkish flag or support Erdoğan even while living in Turkey so it’s not that they’re all considering themselves to be refugees from Turkey or opposition to the government. Some of them are very Turkish nationalist but they’re still 3 million out of a population of 80 million and many people in Germany consider Turkey to be a very authoritarian state and consider it somehow Germans’ responsibility to put Turkey in its place. That’s part of the German nationalism and so we see that especially in the right-wing parties, which say, “Well, we need to teach Turkey a lesson,” or, “We need to make sure that Erdoğan will step down … Not by military invasion but by other means, by soft power.” I think because the current German government is headed actually by a right-wing party, the Christian Democratic Union is a right-wing party, they are certainly willing to use this crackdown on Turkey in order to gain more votes in the upcoming election. What is interesting, however, is also in the left part. We see quite a lot of people supporting the Kurdish resistance movement or the Kurdish independence movement, which is of course very critical of Erdoğan’s regime and trying to gain more freedom within Turkey. So when the left is also in close connection to those groups, then, or parts of the left at least, then it creates a very interesting moment of consensus between the right and the left within Germany. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Shir, I thank you so much for joining us today and very, very interesting situation brewing between Turkey and Germany and I hope you can report back on its developments. Thank you for joining us. SHIR HEVER: Thank you very much. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Dr. Shir Hever grew up in Israel and now lives in Germany. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine stories for 16 years, and for the Real News specifically since 2016. He’s the author of two books and many articles, and is a committed member of several Palestine solidarity groups.