EU refugee deal limits German response to journalist arrest

Angela Merkel met with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month. [Turkish Presidency]

Angela Merkel has called the arrest of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel “disappointing” but will still proceed cautiously in order to not jeopardise the EU-Turkey refugee deal. EURACTIV’s partner Der Tagesspiegel reports.

The arrest is an escalation that nobody in Berlin would have wanted right now. Deniz Yücel’s arrest pending trial on Monday (27 February) has stretched already tense German-Turkish relations to their very limit.

The unusually pointed manner in which the chancellor and two of her ministers criticised the actions of the Turkish judiciary shows how serious Berlin sees the situation.

Merkel called news of the Die Welt journalist‘s arrest “bitter and disappointing”.  Given that Yücel voluntarily submitted himself to the authorities after a judge ordered his arrest, it has been denounced as “disproportionately harsh”.

Berlin still expects Turkey to abide by the highest levels of press freedom. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Justice Minister Heiko Maas (both SPD) were similarly damning in their criticism.

Gabriel’s ministry summoned the Turkish ambassador, Kemal Aydin, to discuss Yücel’s arrest and State Minister Walter Lindner led talks.

Germany summons Turkish ambassador, seeks release of jailed journalist

Berlin summoned Ankara’s ambassador yesterday (28 February) to protest the arrest in Turkey of a correspondent for a German newspaper, further fuelling tensions between the two NATO allies as demonstrations took place across German-speaking Europe.

The action against the German-Turkish reporter has sparked wide protest movements and sympathy in Germany, where Turkey’s crackdown on press freedom has been met with disgust.

160 members of the German parliament wrote to Aydin and human rights organisations, journalist associations, artists, intellectuals and private initiatives have all launched protests.

From a German perspective, the Yücel case could be seen as an acid test to see if Turkey is truly on its way down the path to autocracy.

“The Turkish leadership needs to recognise that we will discuss all legal and political means available to ensure Mr Yücel is set free as quickly as possible,” SPD foreign policy expert Niels Annen told ZDF, warning against fresh strains on their bilateral relationship. “We don’t want that. But we also cannot simply remain silent while fundamental freedoms are violated and ignored by a country.”

But Annen also insisted that contact between the two sides cannot break down, especially in the midst of a crisis. That has been and continues to be the attitude of Merkel’s government.

On the one hand, Berlin appears to be genuinely outraged by the purges that have come in the wake of the attempted purges, as well as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempts to transform Turkey into a presidential system.

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Yet, on the other, the German government has to contend with the fact that the country has significant interests tied to continued cooperation.

Turkey is a NATO partner situated in and near and unstable region, its a base for military operations against Islamic State and its intelligence services cooperate on fighting international terrorism. More than three million Turks also call Germany home, many of whom maintain close ties to their homeland.

But perhaps Merkel’s main concern, in an election year nonetheless, is related to the EU’s much-criticised refugee deal with Ankara and not escalating tensions to a point where Turkey is tempted cancel the deal. A threat it has already made in the past.

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Turkey on Friday (27 January) threatened to scrap a migrant readmission deal with Athens after the Greek Supreme Court refused to return eight suspects allegedly linked to the failed July coup.

The deal has drastically cut the number of refugees crossing the Aegean and makes a significant contribution to Merkel’s own domestic policies. Her socialist rival and former European Parliament president, Martin Schulz, explicitly praised the current chancellor’s commitment to the agreement last year, at the height of the crisis.

How much political clout Germany holds over Turkey looks to be insignificant though. Long before Yücel’s arrest German and European politicians warned Turkey that further steps towards autocracy would ultimately scupper its EU membership aspirations.

But Ankara seemed to pay little attention. German government sources insist that Turkey still relies on Berlin and Brussels though, particularly in terms of financial aid.\

Foreign investors have been scared off by Ankara’s machinations following the failed putsch, as an uncertain climate has taken hold. Berlin sources are considering making economic help more dependent on adherence to the rule of law.

Opposition parties Die Linke and the Greens have called for tougher consequences. Green MP Omid Nouripour has insisted the government be more decisive in its reaction, criticising Angela Merkel for being “held hostage by Erdogan”.

Leftwing leaders Sahra Wagenknecht and Dietmar Bartsch have even called on Berlin to pull the German army out of the Incirlik airbase in south-east Turkey, stop selling arms to the country and “put an end to the planned propaganda appearance of Turkish President Erdogan in Germany as he looks to be made dictator”.

German parliament reveals country's immigration story

Germany faces important elections this year and Chancellor Angela Merkel will have a fight on her hands as her refugee policy continues to divide opinion. But the Bundesrepublik has a rich history of immigration, shown by the current make-up of the German parliament. EURACTIV’s partner Der Tagesspiegel reports.

However, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Martin Schäfer recently indicated that there is no such visit currently planned.

Die Welt Editor-in-Chief Ulf Poschardt confirmed that both the German General Consul in Istanbul and the German ambassador in Ankara had got involved with the Yücel case, as well as the Chancellery office and the Foreign Ministry.

During her last visit to Turkey in February, Merkel discussed cooperation between the two countries on refugee and security policy. But she also raised the contentious issues of freedom of speech and separation of powers. She also argued the case for accreditation for German journalists, which was in danger of being axed.

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