Tensions between Germany and Turkey have escalated. Chancellor Merkel needs to speak out strongly against a possible public appearance in Germany by President Erdogan, writes Jens Thurau.
It is difficult to keep up with the exchange of accusations Germany and Turkey have been flinging at each other. The latest episode features two Turkish ministers being barred from stumping at events in Germany for an upcoming April referendum that would further consolidate Erdogan's grip on power.
"What kind of democracy is this?" complained Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, one of the two men affected. This coming from a representative of a government that in recent months has swiftly jailed hundreds of its critics.
Public accusations and refusal to talk
Germany's Justice Minister Heiko Maas tried to smooth things over with his enraged counterpart. What reached German media instead was a letter warning of the breakdown of rule of law in Turkey.
The German government's press secretary said the dispute over cancelling the ministers' appearances in Germany should not get mixed up with the fate of Deniz Yucel, a German-Turkish journalist for Germany's "Die Welt" newspaper who has been detained in Istanbul.
Yet precisely this has happened. Yucel is being used as a bargaining chip, branded in the Turkish media as a German agent or terrorist. "Germany has gone mad," surmised the "Yeni Safak” newspaper. From Berlin, German President Joachim Gauck dispensed with diplomacy and criticized the leadership apparatus, framed in religion, which Erdogan is clearly trying to establish.
All this just in the last 24 hours, following months of Ankara's untenable dealings – arresting regime critics and calling upon Germany to go after Erdogan's opponents here, to hit just a few points – being met with a measured tone. The priority has always been to maintain lines of communication with Turkey because we need it: as a NATO partner, an EU partner on refugees and the country with the largest population of its citizens living in Germany.
Germany: Not looking on passively
That softness is changing. To win his referendum, Erdogan needs the support of the 1.5 million Turkish voters living in Germany. A victory for him is far from guaranteed in Turkey itself, according to polling, making "yes” votes from abroad all the more decisive.
There is a growing desire in Germany to resist Erdogan's efforts, including a visit he has slated for end of March or early April. Politicians at all levels and from both the government and opposition have come out publicly against Germany being used as a stage for Turkey's further move towards autocracy.
It is legally complicated since the right to assembly is a core value in Germany. Events in Cologne and Gaggenau could only be cancelled on the basis of security, and decided at the local level. Nevertheless, Chancellor Angela Merkel must make a clear statement: Erdogan is not welcome to campaign here. That is the only tone Ankara understands; if it understands anything at all.