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Don’t mention the poem! A tale from Angela Merkel’s Turkish trip

26 April 2016

12:58 PM

26 April 2016

12:58 PM

It was all smiles for the camera as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU top brass visited Nizip refugee camp in the south-east of Turkey over the weekend. A photo opportunity with the Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu and some refugees dressed in traditional costumes preceded the tour. I was among the journalists covering this sanitised pitstop in Gaziantep, a city close to the Syrian border.

The whole event marked a month since the migrant deal between the EU and Turkey. Human rights groups have criticised the deal, which allowed failed asylum seekers to be deported from Greece back to Turkey. They argue that the EU has turned its back on refugees – and that Turkey isn’t a safe country for them to return to. Merkel’s highly symbolic visit was an opportunity to demonstrate the EU’s continuing interest in how refugees are treated here and essentially give Turkey, as a host country, the seal of approval.

The press pack arrived ahead of the photo op at Nizip. The camp has been described by some as a ‘five-star’ refugee camp. And in comparison to many of the other make-shift camps I’ve seen, it may be. But as our bus pulled up we were greeted by dozens of people pressed up against a metal fence topped with barbed wire. It looked more like an open-air prison than a luxury hotel complex. Before Merkel and her team could see them, they were frog-marched back to their tents.

The 40-minute visit went smoothly. Surrounded by officials and plain-clothed officers, Merkel briefly met with a family who unsurprisingly praised Turkey for giving them a home. After leaving the camp she attended a ribbon cutting ceremony at a facility paid for by the EU, before joining the obligatory end-of-day press conference. More praise was heaped on Turkey’s efforts, while Davutoglu bestowed belated birthday wishes on the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk.

One thing was not mentioned, though: the German satirist, Jan Böhmermann. He became famous across the world for his lewd poem about Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is currently subject to a criminal complaint by Erdogan under a little-used German law which prohibits insulting a foreign head of state. The prosecution was given the green-light by Merkel, igniting a firestorm of criticism throughout the democratic world. In response to his arrest, Douglas Murray launched his ‘Insult President Erdogan Competition‘ in The Spectator.

It may come as no surprise that the Böhmermann case wasn’t raised in Gaziantep. It’s a topic neither the Germans nor the Turks are keen to mull over in much detail.  Like every press conference I’ve been to in Turkey, only a few pre-approved journalists are allowed to ask questions, ensuring there are no awkward moments.

A few weeks before the visit to Nizip I had been invited along with other journalists to the Presidential Palace in Ankara for a briefing with senior members of Erdogan’s inner circle. The meeting came a few days after the Böhmermann incident. What happened next gave me a clearer insight into the mentality of the Turkish government and how raw it felt about the incident.

‘You cannot insult the President…as Turkey is not a safe country.’ That was the first response from one stooge to a question about Böhmermann.  He went on, ‘The President is criticised daily and he accepts that, but these insults are so personal we cannot allow it, it upsets the Turkish people. No other leader around the world would accept such things being said about them.’

But where do you draw the line between criticism and an insult? What about free speech? Each question was met by a steely-eyed stare and what soon became a mantra. ‘No other leader would accept this.’ When several people pointed out that Barack Obama and David Cameron are regularly lampooned and torn apart, the stooge just shook his head.

A softly spoken British journalist tried a different tack. He asked if Erdogan realised that by making such a big fuss about Böhmermann he was essentially poking the bear. The response didn’t change, though the head-shaking was ramped up a notch or two. Turkey, it seems, is essentially run by a bunch of moody teenagers desperate to be taken seriously on the world stage.

Sadly, Erdogan has the EU dancing to his tune. When countries like Germany are so eager to placate him, he feels vindicated. His ace is playing host to millions of refugees from Syria and the willingness to take more of the burden, if it means Turks are given visa-free access to the Schengen area. Last week a senior EU official said Turkey had only fulfilled half of the criteria needed to get that free pass. But with only days to go until the deadline, that’s likely to be fudged.

The deal to keep Syrian refugees in Turkey is worth around 4.5 billion pounds over the next four years. But Ankara clearly wants much more. The concern is that the EU may be willing to pay it, whatever the cost and not just in financial terms. What happens with the Böhmermann case will test the water as to how far democratic Europe is prepared to go in order to stem the flow of migrants. But for the meantime, the Turks seem keen to avoid too many questions on the matter.

Rose Asani is a journalist based in the Middle East. 

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