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The Thin-Skinned President’s Outrage ─ German-Turkish Relations Under Pressure Over Satirical Poem

How far is satire allowed to go? In the course of the past weeks this question has become subject of a heated debate in Germany. It was a controversial poem that caused all the excitement and nearly developed into a state affair. Just a few weeks after Chancellor Merkel had negotiated a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to stop the flow of migrants trying to reach Europe; German-Turkish relations were seriously put to the test.

What started the ball rolling was this: During his late-night TV talk show on 31 March, German comedian Jan Böhmermann declaimed a satirical poem containing vulgar and offensive attacks on Erdogan that went clearly below the belt. Too thin-skinned to ignore Böhmermann’s satirical taunts, Erdogan used his new leverage in Europe to apply what he considers best practice at home: bullying the news media (around 1.900 Turkish citizens have been prosecuted for defamation since he took office as President in 2014), and immediately responded by submitting a complaint against Böhmermann. But Erdogan’s lawyers have not only taken the comedian to court for libel under ordinary German law, the Turkish President also requested the German government to prosecute Böhmermann under the outdated §103 of the German Penal Code which provides serious punishment for offending the institutions and representatives of foreign countries and, here lies the crux of the matter, requires the German government’s authorisation.

What needs to be said is that Böhmermann’s poem did not come out of the blue. It was a direct reaction to the Turkish government summoning Germany’s ambassador in Ankara to complain about a comedy song in another German satirical TV programme. This song which had already raised President Erdogan’s ire was totally within the limits of satire. For the comedian Böhmermann, who at the peak of the Greek debt crisis in 2015 played a crucial role in a ‘fake finger video affair’ involving then Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis which brilliantly confronted Germans and Greeks alike with their nasty way of portraying each other, this was an occasion too good to miss. Böhmermann himself explained in his show that his poem should illustrate to Erdogan what really is considered ‘abusive criticism’, thus deliberately crossing the lines of what satire is allowed to do.

The commotion reached its temporary peak last week, when Chancellor Merkel met the press to read out a carefully formulated declaration explaining why she was giving in to President Erdogan’s demand to allow judicial proceedings against Böhmermann under §103. At that time, the ‘Böhmermann affair’ had already gone far beyond the domestic debate about the limits of free speech in Germany. The German media directly linked this case to the refugee crisis raising the question whether the EU had made itself too dependent on Erdogan’s arbitrariness and unpredictability by sealing the above mentioned deal with Ankara.

For Angela Merkel there was nothing to win in this heated debate: had she rejected Erdogan’s pledge for criminal prosecution arguing that with his satire Böhmermann had simply exercised his right to free expression, she had risked offending the highly sensitive and unpredictable Turkish President who, in his own country, is used to subject freedom of press to his will. In a situation, in which Merkel has placed all her hopes for solving the refugee crisis on the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal, she certainly wanted to avoid anything that might cause tensions between Berlin and Ankara. In addition, a rejection of Erdogan’s request would have given him new ammunition to complain about the hypocrisy of the West. Indeed, not considering German courts capable of dealing with such a silly anecdote would have undermined Germany’s moral authority to criticise freedom of speech violations in Turkey in the future.

However, despite all these arguments, Merkel’s decision provoked widespread criticism. Not only the opposition parties, but also her coalition partner in government, the Social Democrats (SPD), and even some representatives within her own party have publicly disapproved of her decision. German public opinion also reacted largely critical. In a poll conducted directly after she had informed the press about her decision, 66 percent of the interviewees said Merkel’s decision was wrong. Considered to be the driving force behind the EU-Turkey deal, her critics in Germany have argued that Merkel is not defending Western values strongly enough, above all freedom of speech, because she wants to appease Erdogan and preserve the deal with Turkey on the refugee crisis. Initially, directly after Böhmermann’s show was broadcasted, Merkel did not react at all to Erdogan’s actions – a recurrent pattern in her way to govern. Then, the very fact that in an attempt to cool down emotions she took sides and concurred with the Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu that the poem was ‘deliberately offensive’, only fuelled domestic criticism even more. In the view of many, Merkel adapted the Turkish viewpoint too easily by acknowledging the offensive character of the poem thus allowing Erdogan to define what is understood as satire in Germany.

Thus, it did not help very much that Merkel, when explaining her decision to the public later on, tried to make her decision look like a mere formality and thus downplayed the responsibility of her government arguing that in a constitutional state it is the task of courts to settle such an issue.  By criticising the poem, she had already politicised the issue herself. Consequently, even if it was formally the right decision to hand the case over to the judiciary, the way she dealt with the issue and the uneasy feeling among Germans that Merkel gave in to Erdogan may leave a lasting impression. As a recent poll indicates, her approval rates have plummeted. While this case strengthens hard-core conservatives in their view that Turkey should not become a member of the EU, newly convinced Merkel supporters who favour her approach in the refugee crisis are feeling alienated how far Merkel is obviously willing to go to keep refugees outside the EU.

The Böhmermann case teaches Germans an uncomfortable truth: the EU-Turkey deal and the prospect of considerably decreasing the number of refugees arriving in the EU come at a price, the price of cooperating with a country whose leader is becoming more and more autocratic. At the same time, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that Turkey is and will be a crucial partner for the EU when it comes to the challenges in the southern neighbourhood. Nevertheless, to think that the EU has been forced into a single-sided dependency on Turkey is flawed. President Erdogan has just as much to lose as the EU. He also has a considerable interest in complying with the deal with the EU because the reinvigorated prospect of EU-accession – and from a more short-term perspective the prospect of visa-liberalisation – provide him with a strong source of legitimacy. Thus, the EU – and at its forefront Germany – should be more confident in exercising its leverage: criticising human rights violations and closely examining the state press freedom press and rule of law should be on top of the political agenda when dealing with Turkey. Not only a stable, secure and prosperous, but even more so a democratic Turkey, is of vital interest for the EU. And the EU has still enough leverage to trigger change in that direction.

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