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German President Visiting Turkey Amid Integration Debate


German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and President Christian Wulff
German President Christian Wulff has a difficult diplomatic act to perform from the moment he steps off his plane today in Turkey.

His five-day visit is listed as ceremonial, with meetings with President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and an address to parliament on October 19.

But the trip coincides with a significant heating up of the debate about immigration in Germany. That debate closely affects the more than 4 million Muslims in that country, most of whom are ethnic Turks.

On October 16, Chancellor Angela Merkel came out with a statement considered extraordinary in its bluntness. She said Germany's attempt to create a multicultural society has "failed, utterly failed."

'That's Not The Reality'

Merkel, speaking at a meeting of her Christian Democratic party, said allowing people of different cultural backgrounds to live side by side without integrating into mainstream society has not worked.

"In Frankfurt, two out of three children under the age of 5 have an immigrant background. We are a country which, at the beginning of the 1960s, actually brought guest workers to Germany," Merkel said. "Now they live with us and we lied to ourselves for a while, saying that they won't stay and that they will have disappeared again one day. That's not the reality. This [multicultural] approach -- saying that we simply live side by side and are happy about each other -- this approach has failed, utterly failed."

Merkel also said Germans feel defined by "the Christian image of humanity." Those who do not accept this “are in the wrong place here."

She urged members of immigrant communities in Germany to do more to integrate, including learning to speak German as a priority. Analysts see her remarks as an attempt to placate the right wing of her CDU party, which is perennially worried about immigration and immigrants.

Her comments point to the resentments which cling to relations between immigrants and the host community. Many young Turks are third-generation Germans, but they neither feel accepted as such nor do they always wish to be -- and that's a fertile breeding ground for radicalization of sections of the Muslim community, among other things.

Difficult Task

The raw tone Merkel has now set to this debate contrasts with President Wulff's soothing comments recently about immigrants. In a speech marking the 20th anniversary of German unification on October 3, he said that Islam is now a recognized part of German culture. That speech brought praise form Turkey's President Gul, who said he "much appreciated" the sentiments.

Wulff now has the difficult task of explaining to his hosts in Ankara why the head of the elected government of Germany sees the last 40 years of immigration as a failure on a grand scale.

Both sides also know that the German people do not want Turkey to join the European Union, a process which is going forward only haltingly. Public opinion polls indicate that 72 percent of Germans do not want to see Turkey in the EU as a full member.

Despite these points of tension, formal relations between Ankara and Berlin are -- as usual -- in good shape.

Wulff's trip also takes in a full range of activities, including the laying of the foundation stone for a German-Turkish university in Istanbul and meetings with religious leaders.

written by Breffni O'Rourke, with agency reports