German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan talk during their meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, September 28, 2018. Bundesregierung/Guido Bergmann/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
At the Chancellery in Berlin, Angela Merkel (left) rebuffed Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s demand that the movement of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen be designated a terrorist organisation © Reuters

Angela Merkel offered a cool reception to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call for a new detente with Germany, stressing the “far-reaching differences” between Berlin and Ankara on issues such as press freedom and human rights.

The German chancellor also firmly rebuffed Mr Erdogan’s demand that the movement of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, which he blames for the attempted coup in 2016 that left 250 dead, be designated a terrorist organisation.

But she also said that there was “much that unites us”, stressing Turkey’s status as a Nato ally and its role in helping to stem refugee flows into Europe and fighting terrorism. She added that Berlin had an interest in an “economically stable Turkey”.

Ms Merkel said she and Mr Erdogan planned to hold a four-way summit in October with the leaders of Russia and France to discuss the situation in Idlib, the last remaining opposition stronghold in Syria.

Mr Erdogan’s three-day visit to Germany was intended to mend fences after a period of mutual antagonism that has left deep scars on the relationship.

The overtures towards Berlin intensified amid a sharp deterioration in relations between Turkey and the US over the summer. Turkey’s currency suffered a sharp fall in August after President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on the country over the continued detention of a US pastor on espionage and terrorism charges.

But the German-Turkish relationship is equally troubled. Berlin has repeatedly expressed concern over Turkey’s drift to authoritarianism under Mr Erdogan, his hollowing out of democratic institutions and the massive purge carried out by the Turkish authorities since the 2016 putsch.

Some 130,000 public servants were summarily dismissed from their jobs and 50,000 people jailed over their alleged involvement in the coup attempt, among them dozens of German citizens, five of whom remain in custody.

Turkey, for its part, has been angered by Germany’s refusal to extradite military officers which it accuses of involvement in the aborted putsch and who have claimed asylum from the German authorities.

A low point came last year during the run-up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum. When a number of German cities barred campaign appearances by Turkish politicians, Mr Erdogan accused them of Nazi-like practices, prompting outrage in Berlin.

Despite the frictions, Ms Merkel was at pains to stress the areas of common interest between the two countries. She praised Turkey for taking in more than 3m refugees from the civil war in Syria and for its role in staving off an assault on Idlib. Ms Merkel said both Ankara and Berlin had a “strategic interest in good relations”.

But there was also clear evidence on Friday that the relationship remained strained. Mr Erdogan had initially refused to attend the joint press conference if Can Dundar, the former editor of the Cumhuriyet newspaper who fled to Germany after being accused of espionage, was present. Mr Dundar decided not to attend instead.

Ms Merkel confirmed there had been a “controversy” over Mr Dundar and that she and Mr Erdogan had “differences of opinion over him and his case”. Mr Erdogan in turn called Mr Dundar an “agent” who had been convicted by a Turkish court of espionage and revealing state secrets, and sentenced to 5 years and 10 months in prison. The Turkish president called on the German authorities to extradite him.

Mr Erdogan also insisted that Germany declare the Gulen movement a terrorist organisation and move against the hundreds of its adherents living on German soil. “This is very important for peace and security in both countries,” he said. Ms Merkel said Germany took the information provided by Turkey on the Gulen movement “very seriously” but it “was not enough” to warrant giving the group the same designation as the PKK, the armed Kurdistan Workers’ party.

Ms Merkel called for the speedy release of German citizens in Turkish custody and criticised the delays in bringing charges against people detained in Turkish prisons after the coup attempt, saying it caused a “high degree of uncertainty”. Mr Erdogan urged Germans to show “respect” for the independence of the Turkish judiciary.

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