Böhmermann case is the smallest of Merkel’s sins

Böhmermann case is the smallest of Merkel’s sins

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the target of criticism for her policies in regards to tackling the refugee crisis. She tried to handle it by sharing the burden with the other 27 member countries of the European Union, but she could not convince the majority, especially the East and Central European countries, who seem to have forgotten the fact that until two decades ago their citizens endured similar hardships as political refugees.

Seeing that it would be impossible to enable a mechanism whereby newly arriving refugees would be received by all member countries according to certain quotas, she then decided to slow down the arrivals by engaging Turkey and other EU members that formed the coalition of the willing. The deal that was struck might have several shortcomings but the alternative was the collapse of Schengen and Europe behind the walls. 

This new engagement process coincides with a period when democratic backpedalling is peaking in Turkey.

The European Commission’s annual progress report, which included serious criticism, was postponed till after the November 2015 general elections. As the cease-fire was suspended and armed conflict was resumed with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), European capitals turned a deaf ear to claims of human rights violations in the Turkey’s southeast. Journalists and academics that were sent to jail never made it to Merkel’s agenda.

But Europe in general has been turning a blind eye to the deterioration of democratic standards in Turkey ever since it started after 2010. That in fact suited the interests of the Europeans, since democratic backpedalling meant a further postponement of Turkey’s eventual membership in the EU.

The European public opinion’s recent discovery of Turkey sliding towards authoritarian rule is not motivated by a sudden wish to see a more democratic Turkey. Unhappy with the refugee deal, they opted to criticize Merkel for engaging with a leader who is not respecting democratic norms and values. 

Currently Merkel is again the target of harsh criticism for accepting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s demand that Germany prosecute a comedian who insulted him. Jan Böhmermann’s poem, which had Erdoğan committing bestiality and “kicking Kurds and beating up Christians while watching child porn,” was just sickening.

If there is rule of law in Germany, if Germans trust their justice system, they should not be so upset by Merkel opening the way for the German courts to determine whether to prosecute the satirist. Having been totally indifferent to Turkey’s democratic backpedalling, entrusting the judgment about a totally disgusting poem to the German justice system is the least of Merkel’s sins, particularly in view of the fact that many predict nothing will come of the case against Böhmermann. 

But of course those criticizing Merkel are not just preoccupied by Böhmermann’s freedom to throw obscene insults.

The New York Times for instance criticized Merkel, comparing her situation to a dilemma posed by a kidnapper. “Paying the ransom solves the immediate problem but sets a dangerous precedent,” said the New York Times.

But perhaps that could give her leverage over Erdoğan. Both Merkel and Turkey’s leaders have to make sure the refugee deal works. Its collapse will be costly for both sides. By now Merkel must have gained the trust and appreciation of both the Turkish president and prime minister to engage Turkey in the refugee crisis while standing up against Turkey’s critics.

Underlining the fact she is facing severe criticism both about the refugee deal and Turkey’s democratic deficit, she should initiate a dialogue with her counterparts telling them Turkey’s disrespect of fundamental values is jeopardizing the deal.

If she does not prioritize the democratic deficit in her talks with Turkey from now on, she will set a very dangerous precedent, as the New York Times warned. Not only would this stance send the wrong message to other authoritarian leaders, it would also give the impression to the Turkish leadership that they are the ones pulling the strings in this relationship. Then there will be no end to their demands.