Angela Merkel announced that the German government is going to proceed with the prosecution of a comedian who read a poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan having sex with goats. The Turkish government had formally requested the prosecution earlier this week, igniting a political firestorm. Politico.eu reports:
Merkel, announcing her decision, said that in the specific case of a paragraph in the German criminal code against insulting representatives or symbols of a foreign state, it was up to the government to grant permission for prosecutors to go ahead. After examination of Turkey’s request by the foreign, justice and interior ministries and her own office, the decision was that “the government will grant permission in this case.”
The case has left Merkel in both a political and legal bind. While Germany needs Turkey’s support to slow the flow of refugees coming to Europe, Berlin doesn’t want to be seen sacrificing its own values in the process. Yet the German law cited by Erdoğan, which dates back to the 19th century, may give Merkel the cover she needs to weather the uproar.
The chancellor’s message on Friday appeared to be that while she was compelled by the law to allow the case to move forward, she disagreed with the statute and planned to overturn it before elections next year. Many German legal scholars have also argued there was little legal basis for Merkel to block the case.
That said, given the broader concerns about media freedom, Merkel could have also argued that since Erdoğan has filed a separate defamation complaint, the government saw no need to invoke the law on offending foreign leaders. More than 80 percent of Germans are opposed to the investigation, according to a poll published by Die Welt. Most Germans see it as a transparent attempt to appease Erdoğan.
It seems Mrs. Merkel trying to have it both ways. That’s probably because, as Leonid Bershidsky recently pointed out:
Public opinion is firmly on Boehmermann’s side. A YouGov poll released Tuesday showed that 77 percent of Germans didn’t want the comedian to be prosecuted, 68 percent opposed Merkel’s semi-apology to Davutoglu — and 48 percent found the poem itself “reasonable,” while just 29 percent held the opposite view. A hashtag emerged on Twitter, #JesuisBöhmi, after “Je suis Charlie,” the slogan that was used to express solidarity after terrorists attacked Charlie Hebdo last year.
On the other hand, as we noted last week, she needs Erdogan’s cooperation to keep the EU’s deal with Turkey on refugees intact. There are lots of problems with this. Even within Germany’s relatively restricted free speech traditions, the measure has sparked an outcry. Boehmermann’s comments were clearly political in nature, and went beyond just bestiality references. Erdogan is, for instance, oppressing his country’s Kurds, as Boehmermann alleged, and the German public rightly questions getting into bed with such a man.
Furthermore, the deal with the devil on immigration may not even prove that practical: already, large numbers of refugees are streaming toward Italy (where the EU is yet again ill-prepared.) What if the Europeans sold their soul and didn’t even get the price they’d asked for?
But finally, if someone is thin-skinned enough to want people prosecuted for insulting him in another country, and he gets his way, it’s unlikely things will stop there. Erdogan increasingly acts like a caliph at home, and it seems he wants to be treated like one abroad. This is unlikely to be the last time someone in Germany says something pointed about Erdogan. And if or when the refugee deal becomes onerous on Turkey, the Turkish President may come back to ask for an alteration—threatening to open the floodgates if he doesn’t get his way. What will Erdogan ask for next—and what will Berlin do then?