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Erdogan's Germany Visit Offends Berlin

3:57 PM, Feb 12, 2008 • By ULF GARTZKE
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Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's recent four-day trip to Germany--during which he not only demanded that Berlin fund the launch of new Turkish-language schools and universities but also dared to call on the 2.5 million Turks living there to reject assimilation into German society--has provoked sharp criticism from German politicians of virtually all political stripes, including top leaders from the ruling CDU/CSU-SPD "grand coalition." In his speech to more than 20,000 supporters of Turkish origin in Cologne on Sunday, Erdogan went so far as to call assimilation "a crime against humanity."

CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel, who normally prefers to strike a rather diplomatic note, was unusually blunt in criticizing Erdogan's provocative statements. She said "no" to more Turkish-language classes (in her view, the Turks living in Germany should focus on taking advantage of government-sponsored German classes to improve their often weak language skills) and also stressed that Germans of Turkish origin owed their loyalty to the German state.

According to Germany's Der Spiegel, the message of Erdogan's speech, which was not translated from Turkish into German, was exactly the opposite:

His speech, in which the phrases "we Turks" and "the Germans" appear again and again, does deliver a clear message: You may live in Germany, but you are Turks--and I am your prime minister.

Erdogan's visit came at a particularly sensitive time in Turkish-German relations and was overshadowed by a recent house fire in the city of Ludwigshafen that killed nine Turks, including several children. Despite the fact that the exact cause of the fire has not yet been established, Turkish media (both in Turkey and in Germany) immediately seized on the tragedy, declaring it a case of racially motivated arson.

So far, German fire investigators, assisted by several experts dispatched by the Turkish government, have already determined that the fire broke out in the basement. The investigation's preliminary result is extremely important since it flatly refutes earlier, conflicting statements by two young Turkish girls who claimed to have seen a man setting the fire in the stairway. According to German media reports, the Turkish grandfather of the two girls has already confirmed to the police that the fire started in the basement.

While Erdogan used his trip to Germany to call on the Turkish media to tone down their aggressive anti-German rhetoric in the wake of the Ludwigshafen fire, the prime minister's ruling Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) must certainly have welcomed the sudden media frenzy--it provided a perfect distraction from the AKP's highly controversial constitutional amendment lifting the decades-old ban on headscarves in Turkish universities. This unprecedented move, which had triggered demonstrations by tens of thousands secular Turks over recent weeks, formally took effect last Saturday.

In sum, Erdogan's Germany trip was a major disappointment. Rather than using his crucially important visit to allay wide-spread European fears surrounding Turkey's attempt to join the EU, the prime minister clearly made matters worse by stoking the flames of Turkish nationalism (mixed with the AKP's brand of Islamist identity) and casting further doubts about his commitment to European integration.

Conservative CSU party leader Erwin Huber, who has long advocated a "privileged partnership" between Turkey and the EU as a viable alternative to full membership, criticized Erdogan's speech as the "preaching of Turkish nationalism on German soil." Given the "anti-European" nature of the Turkish prime minister's statements, Huber even questioned whether it still makes sense to continue the EU's accession talks with Turkey. This is extremely unlikely to happen. However, there can be no doubt that Erdogan's fierce anti-assimilation speech--imagine the Mexican president doing the same in the United States--has provided new political ammunition to those opposed to Turkish EU membership. According to an opinion poll conducted the day after Erdogan's provocative statements, 62 percent of all Germans are now against Turkey joining the EU. Back in 2002, that figure only stood at 48 percent. The comparative figures in France, Austria, and other European countries are already much higher.