BERLIN – Germany warned its citizens on Thursday to exercise caution if traveling to Turkey and threatened measures that could hinder German investment there in a sign of growing impatience with a NATO ally after the detention of rights activists.
“Everyone can be affected. The most absurd things are possible,” said Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in a caution to travelers that highlighted alarm at what Berlin clearly sees as the growing unpredictability of President Tayyip Erdogan.
Gabriel broke off his holiday to return to Berlin and deal with the crisis after Turkey arrested six human rights activists including German national Peter Steudtner on accusations of terrorism, the latest in a series of diplomatic rows. Germany, Turkey’s chief export partner, called the allegations absurd.
“We need our policies towards Turkey to go in a new direction…we can’t continue as we have done,” Gabriel told reporters in unusually direct language touching on sensitive commercial matters including corporate investment guarantees.
Erdogan says a crackdown, in which 150,000 people have been sacked or suspended from the judiciary and journalism to academia and roughly 50,000 detained, was essential after a failed coup last July. Domestic and foreign critics accuse him of using a state of emergency as cover to root out opposition.
Juergen Hardt, a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party, said the EU candidate had now “left the path to Europe. No one invests in a country…in which the judiciary has been degraded to be a helper of the ruling AKP party.”
Many companies have also been seized since the coup attempt on allegations of links to terrorism.
Turkey has accused Berlin of supporting a U.S. based Muslim cleric it charges with engineering the coup, and of harboring anti-Turkish “terrorists,” including Turkish army officers seeking asylum in Germany.
Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin suggested Gabriel’s remarks were intended to win votes at national elections in two months. “They need to rid themselves of this abdication of reason and think rationally.”
Gabriel’s warnings to private as well as business travelers could deal a significant blow to the tourism industry. So far this year, bookings from Germany have accounted for close to 10 percent of Turkey’s tourists.
“Until now there was guidance for certain groups but we’re saying that now applies to all German citizens, not just for those with certain jobs,” said Gabriel.
In its new guidance, the foreign ministry said: “People who are traveling to Turkey…are urged to exercise increased caution, and should register with German consulates and the embassy, even for shorter visits.”
Last year, the number of foreign visitors to Turkey fell to 25.4 million amid a spate of bombings by Kurdish and Islamist militants, the lowest in nine years. The travel sector contributes some $30 billion to the economy in a normal year.
Kalin rejected the suggestion that Germans traveling to Turkey faced any danger.
“It is also not acceptable to create doubts in the minds of German investors in Turkey. It is not possible for us to accept statements aiming to blur the economic environment based on political motivations, we hope they turn back from this.”
In comments that threatened broader economic consequences, Gabriel said he could not advise companies to invest in a country without legal certainty (where) even completely innocent companies are judged as being close to terrorists.”
“I can’t see how we as the German government can continue to guarantee corporate investments in Turkey if there is the threat of arbitrary expropriation for political reasons.”
“We need to talk about how we can develop our Hermes guarantee framework and how we deal with investment loans and economic aid.”
On Wednesday, the newspaper Die Zeit reported that Turkish authorities had several weeks ago handed Berlin a list of 68 German companies they accused of having links to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Turkey accuses Gulen of masterminding the coup attempt, a charge he denies.
The list included chemicals giant BASF (BASFn.DE), which confirmed it was on a list that had been passed to it by German police, but declined to comment on the allegations.
Turkish deputy prime minister Mehmet Simsek said on Thursday the reports were untrue.
Germany was Turkey’s top export destination in 2016, buying $14 billion worth of Turkish exports, according to IMF direction of trade statistics. It was also the second biggest source of Turkish imports, at $21.5 billion. Only China, at $25.4 billion, exported more to Turkey.
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