segunda-feira, 18 de abril de 2016

Erdogan and the Satirist: Inside Merkel's Comedy Conundrum Part 3: The Political Disaster

Erdogan and the Satirist: Inside Merkel's Comedy Conundrum
Part 3: The Political Disaster
April 15, 2016 – 10:29 PM

Yet while Jan Böhmermann's personal drama is happening quietly behind the scenes, the political game is being played out very publicly. As it unfolds, the Böhmermann affair of state is slowly detaching itself from its protagonist. The satirist is merely the trigger for unfolding events. It is others who are causing it to escalate.

Within days, what began as resentment between two countries has become an outright political disaster. It is one partly triggered by Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, ironically a former ZDF journalist himself.

Following a complaint by the Turkish government, Merkel held a telephone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The next day, Seibert reported in a press conference that Merkel was of the opinion that Böhmermann's satire text had been "deliberately hurtful" and that she had described it as such to Davutoglu. It was an unusual thing to say given that Seibert normally blocks questions from journalists about Merkel's phone calls -- and the move was intended to prevent Erdogan from taking legal measures on his own. Four days later, it became clear that this had been a miscalculation.
That's the day a fax containing an official diplomatic note verbale from the Turkish Foreign Ministry arrived in the legal department of Germany's Foreign Ministry. In it, the Turkish government announced that it would submit a criminal complaint in Germany against Böhmermann for insulting a foreign head of state under Paragraph 103 of Germany's Criminal Code, a relic dating back to the era of the Kaiser.

A Lack of Unity

Because such legal proceedings may only be carried out if authorized by the federal government, the ball was now in Merkel's court and the maneuvering got underway in earnest. In formal terms, a letter from Germany's Foreign Ministry to the responsible public prosecutor would suffice to get things rolling. But Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) didn't want to personally take on that level of responsibility. He informed Merkel that he felt this was a matter for the entire German government. The debate went on for days but no consensus developed.

On Monday afternoon, officials from the Chancellery, the Foreign Ministry and the Justice Ministry met to brief each other on the latest developments. The meeting -- led by Merkel's foreign policy advisor, Christoph Heusgen, and Stephan Steinlein, Steinmeier's state secretary -- failed to produce any results. In the Chancellery, officials tended to favor allowing the criminal proceedings under Paragraph 103 to go ahead as a way of deferring ultimate judgment to the justice system.

Berlin government officials made the case that a precedent had been set in the case of former Swiss Federal President Micheline Calmy-Rey, who was the last person to successfully place a criminal complaint under the law in Germany in 2007. After a Swiss national had posted insults about her on the Internet in Regensburg, Germany, a German court prosecuted the man. Besides, government officials argued, Seibert had already said what the chancellor thought of Böhmermann's poem. How could they now refuse Erdogan's demand?

Fear of Turkey?

There is also a feeling in the Chancellery that Germany has shown Turkey the "cold shoulder" in recent years and that there is an opportunity right now to draw the country closer to Europe again. And of course there is also a nightmare scenario: The chancellor fears that Erdogan may scrap the refugee deal with the EU if she doesn't yield to the Turkish demand.

The treaty is more than just a piece of paper to Merkel -- it's proof that the refugee crisis can be solved with means other than barbed wire. If Erdogan were to scrap the treaty, which was so painstakingly hashed out, it would be a significant defeat for the chancellor.

The Böhmermann scandal also became the source this week of a serious row within the government coalition. The SPD and the conservatives are in no way united on the issue. In contrast to Merkel, Foreign Minister Steinmeier does not want to yield to Erdogan on the issue. Officials in the Foreign Ministry fear that giving in might encourage other foreign government leaders who somehow feel offended to take similar action. "We are skeptical about whether criminal law is the right path here," one source close to Steinmeier says.

When leaders of the government coalition met up on Wednesday night in the Chancellery, they actually had more important issues to talk about than the Böhmermann affair. Germany's new integration law was on the agenda as was a reform of the country's inheritance tax and the Energiewende plan to eliminate nuclear power. But that night, at 12:30 a.m., Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to the CDU, asked Merkel and SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel to private meetings.

Merkel told Seehofer that she wanted to grant Erdogan's request. Seehofer answered that the German people viewed the deal with Turkey very critically. "Under no circumstances can we allow ourselves to become dependent on Turkey," he said. But he also said he would not stand in the way of Merkel's decision as long as she also noted when making it that freedom of the press must also apply in Turkey.

But Merkel proved unable to sway Gabriel during a meeting with him. This led the chancellor to consider once again cancelling the usual Thursday noon press conference in which the results of the coalition committee meeting are presented. Merkel had been concerned that the Böhmermann affair would overshadow everything else. But then she changed her mind. At the press conference, she addressed the Böhmermann scandal only by saying that the government was still reviewing the matter. She didn't mention a word about the political dispute behind the scenes that had led to the delay.

For Merkel, the Böhmermann scandal is a debacle because it lays bare the shortcomings of her own refugee policies. It was right to negotiate a treaty with Turkey in order to reduce the flow of refugees, and of course this must also entail making some concessions to the Turkish autocrat in Ankara. Global politics, after all, is not an ethics seminar. The problem is that Merkel made it sound as if there were no other way for getting the refugee crisis under control than entrusting herself to a man who has no qualms about exercising any power he has at his disposal.

A Bow to Erdogan

Merkel's political approach is based on finding consensus to solve problems and breaking even the most difficult aspects of politics down into manageable portions. This also served as her approach in the Böhmermann scandal. She emphasized, of course, that the values of Germany's constitution are "non-negotiable." She said: "Journalistic freedom applies to us, but we will also demand it in Turkey." At the same time, she snubbed Böhmermann's disparaging poem. It was a bow to Erdogan's belief that heads of state always know best when it comes to how far satirists should be allowed to go.

On this issue, it will be hard for Merkel to win with anybody. In Germany, she will now be viewed as a chancellor who has a wavering stance on artistic freedom. With a bit of good will, one might be able to accept the decision as having been a necessity in terms of realpolitik. But realpolitik must also be measured against the results it produces. In this case, Merkel's efforts at rapprochement with a man who seems to view his country as more of a sultanate than a democracy did little to prevent Erdogan from taking action against Böhmermann. To the contrary: It appears that her actions encouraged him to tap all the avenues available to the Turkish leader in the German Penal Code to launch a legal challenge against Böhmermann for insulting him, including personally filing a criminal complaint, which he has also done. The move ensured that the public prosecutor would have to investigate the case even if the federal government made the decision not to pursue it.

The provocation actually serves Erdogan because it will enable him to close his ranks even further. The more effort his critics make in poking fun of him, it seems, the more solid support among his backers grows. His efforts to snub his opponents are a targeted political instrument that Erdogan frequently deploys in a way that fits well with his quick-tempered character.

Still, Turkey has a tradition of satire and it still exists in the country. There isn't just one Böhmermann-like case in Turkey, there are hundreds. The situation there for satirists is so dire that most Turkish humorists don't want to talk publicly about the conditions under which they are currently forced to work.

"Today I talk and tomorrow I'll be buried," says one, who prefers to remain anonymous. "It's enough that we risk our lives with our texts and drawings. We don't have to talk to the media as well."

For Merkel, the Böhmermann affair comes at a bad time, just as the refugee deal with Turkey -- a deal which she is almost entirely responsible for putting together -- is beginning to gain traction. On Wednesday of this week, European Council President Donald Tusk spoke before European Parliament in Strasbourg, noting that the numbers of migrants coming to Greece from Turkey across the Aegean Sea has dropped significantly. In January, he said, it was 70,000 people, in March it was just 30,000 and in April, just 1,000 people have arrived thus far. "How many would have come in April if we had not taken action?" he asked.the European Parliament in Strasbourg, noting that the numbers of migrants coming to Greece from Turkey across the Aegean Sea has dropped significantly. In January, he said, it was 70,000 people, in March it was just 30,000 and in April, just 1,000 people have arrived thus far. "How many would have come in April if we had not taken action?" he asked.

Top Commission officials who are critical of the deal also admit that Turkey has at least partially upheld its end of the bargain and that the number of refugees heading for Greece is dropping.

But there are problems. According to Amnesty International reports, Turkey has sent up to 100 Syrians back into Syria every day this year. "Is this true? And if this is true, can we continue with a deal that is against international law and against our obligations?" asked Guy Verhofstadt, floor leader for the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, in Strasbourg. His party believes Erdogan is using the deal to force Europe to back away from its values.
"We have already given him the keys to the gates of Europe and now we risk handing over the keys to our newsrooms to him so that he decides and controls our media," Verhofstadt said. Böhmermann's skit, he said, is "not my taste in humor, but in a free society such satirical poems must be possible. That is the price we pay for our freedom, and we pay happily for our freedom."

With his skit, the artist Jan Böhmermann has created a monument to himself. And even if hardly anyone has been able to see the Erdogan number in its entirety, it already belongs in the German Historical Museum.

By Markus Brauck, Jörg Diehl, Dietmar Hipp, Isabell Hülsen, Hasnain Kazim, Alexander Kühn, Nils Minkmar, Martin U. Müller, Peter Müller, Ann-Katrin Nezik, René Pfister, Fidelius Schmid and Christoph Schult

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