Angela Merkel on March 3 intervened in the war of words between Berlin and Ankara over local German authorities’ cancellation of rallies where Turkish ministers were due to speak about the upcoming referendum on introducing an executive presidency with sweeping powers in Turkey.
Following the blocking of the campaign events called to address Turkish citizens living in Germany, the Turkish government accused the German government of outrageous behaviour, but during a visit to Tunis Merkel told reporters that decisions about public gatherings are made at the local level in Germany.
She added that Germany remained committed to freedom of expression. Observers took that as a reference not only to the right of politicians of all stripes to address voters, but to the right of journalists to freely go about doing their job – Merkel has in the past week condemned as harsh the detention by Turkish police of Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yucel, the incarceration of whom led Amnesty International to declare that the free media in Turkey “is in its death throes”. Free media advocates were also disheartened to this week learn that following a clash with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hurriyet daily had edited an article and replaced its editor-in-chief.
Tension between Turkish and German politicians escalated after the local governments of the southwestern German town of Gaggenau and the city of Cologne announced on March 2 that they had cancelled scheduled events where Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag and Turkish Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci were due to speak about the referendum due to be held on April 16. They said their decisions were driven by security concerns.
An anonymous caller on March 3 threatened to bomb Gaggenau town hall following the Gaggenau cancellation.
Erdogan: Germany abetting terrorism
The same day saw Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accuse Germany of practicing double standards when it came to the freedom of speech, while according to Reuters Erdogan remarked at an awards ceremony in Istanbul: "So, they won't let our justice minister and economy minister speak. They need to be tried for helping and abetting terrorism."
Turkish-German relations have been tense since the failed military coup of July 15 last year in Turkey. After the putsch was foiled, Erdogan in strong language criticised what he perceived as a lack of condemnation of the plotters from European Union nations and threatened to withhold cooperation in stemming the flow of Syrian refugees via Turkey into Europe.
Germany remains Turkey’s largest trade partner. Last year, it was Turkey’s largest export market, absorbing 10.3% of Turkish goods sold abroad. Germans in 2016 maintained their top position in terms of Turkey’s foreign arrivals, despite a 30% y/y decline to 3.89mn. The represented a 15.34% share of total arrivals in the year.
German authorities have been busy warning the Turkish government not to export Turkey’s domestic conflicts to Germany where millions of Turkish citizens live. Ankara claims Germany is harbouring members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the leftist DHKP-C. Furthermore, Erdogan has accused Germany of becoming the backyard of the Gulenists, whom he claims orchestrated the attempted coup, despite failing to present any evidence of that in public.
Merkel, meanwhile, is performing a challenging balancing act. On the one hand she must be wary of inflaming Erdogan to the point where he fails to adhere to his refugee deal with Brussels, while on the other, with Germany heading towards September’s parliamentary elections, there will be growing pressure among the German electorate on the chancellor to challenge Erdogan over issues such as human rights, freedom of expression and his interference in German affairs.
One day after the detention of journalist Yucel, German police raided the apartments of four Turkish imams suspected of conducting espionage on behalf of Ankara against followers of US-based cleric Fetullah Gulen. The German Federal Public Prosecutor's Office (GBA) said in a statement that the imams were acting on orders issued in September last year by Turkish religious authority Diyanet. In January, just ahead of Merkel’s visit to Turkey, Germany’s chief prosecutor launched an investigation into possible espionage being pursued by Turkish clerics.
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