Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan went to the mat on Sunday over the decision of three German cities to cancel upcoming Turkish political rallies.
“Your practices are not different from the Nazi practices of the past," Erdoǧan railed, speaking at a political rally in Istanbul. “You will lecture us about democracy and then you will not let this country's ministers speak there.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a few choice words in response. “It’s especially grave — and I personally find it just sad — that Nazi comparisons really only lead to one thing: trivializing the incomparable crimes against humanity carried out under National Socialism,” she said. “One cannot seriously comment on such misplaced statements.”
The exchange marked a new nadir in the plummeting German-Turkish relationship and solidified a chill between Ankara and Berlin that has gotten significantly frostier this month with the February 14 detention, and arrest, of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel, a correspondent for the newspaper Die Welt.
Yücel was arrested after writing a piece regarding the hacked emails of Erdoǧan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, who is also Turkey’s energy minister. Yücel has been accused of "propagandizing for a [terrorist] organization" and "provoking the people to hatred and animosity," but the Washington Post reported that even pro-government officials had questioned the arrest. Mustafa Yeneroglu, a member of the Justice and Development Party, which is in power, noted on Twitter the journalist’s detention is “problematic” — “The concept of propaganda is being stretched,” he wrote.
Merkel has criticized Yücel’s detention, saying last Wednesday that Germany "will continue to insist on a fair and legal treatment of Deniz Yücel and hope that he will soon regain his freedom." Human rights groups have protested and demonstrations have taken place in German cities, arguing for his release. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called the charges against Yücel “spurious” and demanded his immediate release.
But Germany can’t simply walk away from Turkey, as Erdoǧan well knows. In addition to their varied trade partnerships, Turkey and the European Union agreed to a wide-ranging deal to help halt the flood of migrants into Europe last March 18. That agreement stated, “All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands as from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey.” It is widely seen as the only wall against a new flood of migrants into Germany.
Erdoǧan has promised to cancel the agreement, several times — a threat that has particular resonance in Germany, which controversially had nearly 900,000 asylum seekers in 2015.
Political analysts and journalists have begun to argue upholding the agreement has prevented Merkel from speaking out more vocally about Erdoǧan’s increasingly undemocratic policies, including the detention of journalists and political opponents, suppression of public dissent, and quest for near-absolute power.
What were the rallies anyway?
The rallies Erdoǧan was so peeved over were meant to inspire the 1.4 million Turks (out of 3 million who live in Germany) who remain eligible to vote in Turkish elections to vote “yes” on a constitutional amendment proposal to grant Erdoǧan greater powers.
Erdoǧan has already changed the presidency from one that was largely ceremonial to one with real power. The new amendment would go even further, according to Deutsche Welle, and give the Turkish leader “the power to dismiss ministers and parliament, issues decrees, declare emergency rule and appoint figures to key positions, including the judiciary.”
European human rights and civil liberties watchers have warned that the measure, if passed, could threaten Turkey’s democratic future. The Venice Commission, a constitutional law arm of the Council of Europe, maintained last Wednesday that the result would be “autocracy and a one-person regime” in Turkey.
Erdoǧan may officially be willing to see if the amendment allows him to further expand his powers, but European observers worry that that process already began to accelerate last summer after a failed coup prompted a significant crackdown on political opposition.
The Republican People’s Party, the Turkish opposition political party, told the Guardian that Yücel’s arrest brings the number of journalists in detention since the coup to 152, and the number of media organizations shuttered to 173. A Turkish civil rights group, P24, said the number of incarcerated journalists is actually 155. Tens of thousands of Turkish military personnel, police officers, academics, and ordinary citizens have also been detained since the attempted coup. CPJ noted in December 2016 that more journalists were detained in Turkey than in any other country since CPJ began collecting data in 1992.
Yücel’s arrest is the first of a journalist with German citizenship, though, and is widely seen as a means of further chilling media coverage and complicating relations between the two countries.
Merkel met with Erdoǧan on February 2, just about two weeks before Yücel was taken into custody. At that meeting, according to Reuters, she emphasized that while both Turkey and Germany were on board to fight terror, dissent is a part of democracy.
“In such a time of profound political upheaval, everything must be done to continue to protect the separation of powers and, above all, freedom of opinion and the diversity of society,” she said at a news conference following that meeting.
Germans want Merkel to criticize Turkey more vocally
On Monday, the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel had blunt words for Merkel about her continued relationship with Turkey. Titled “Let’s end the submission: Refugee Crisis Prevents Honest Dealings with Turkey,” the lead editorial accused Merkel of having “shackled” Germany to Turkey because of last spring’s migrant deal.
Erdoǧan, Marcus Feldenkirchen wrote, hoped to deliver a “major speech in Germany,” and use the free speech laws of Germany for “the chance to promote proposed changes to the Turkish constitution that would be the decisive step in transforming his country from an autocratic, despotic state to a dictatorship. It's the height of chutzpah” (using the Yiddish word for “audacity”). Feldenkirchen continued, “The Turkish president wants to take advantage of our freedom of assembly and expression to promote the elimination of precisely those civil liberties in Turkey.” Feldenkirchen said Merkel’s government policies were “driven by fear” of the pact unraveling:
The deal's goal isn't all that complex: Erdogan, whose country is home to just under 3 million refugees, has agreed to prevent a further wave of migration to Germany and is being paid a handsome sum of money for his services as doorman. Not just with billions of European euros for the care of refugees in Turkey. But also with ignoble silence about his trampling of democracy and human rights.
Given that a new wave of refugees could destroy Merkel's chances of re-election this fall, the chancellor has been conspicuously submissive in her approach to Erdogan.
Others have been more vocal. In the wake of the new controversy over Yücel’s incarceration, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel further highlighted the divides between Berlin and Ankara.
Yücel’s case, he said, “shines a bright spotlight onto the differences our two countries have when it comes to the implementation of fundamental principles of the rule of law and valuing press freedom and freedom of speech.”
But it is Merkel who has the most to lose if Erdoǧan does break the refugee agreement. Germany will hold elections in September, and Merkel has already stated this will be her “hardest election” yet — early February polls saw significant gains from her closest competition, the Social Democrats. Last September, regional elections saw a significant gain for far-right, anti-immigrant parties and was widely seen as a referendum on public anger with Merkel’s migrant policy.