Berlin-Ankara diplomatic strain grows after Germany cancels rallies

Foreign minister says Turkish visitors are welcome but electioneering events are not

The Berlin-Ankara diplomatic crisis cranked up a notch on Thursday after German authorities cancelled two political rallies by Turkish ministers, citing safety and security concerns.

The rallies, aimed to drum up support among Germany’s 1.4 million Turkish voters for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s constitutional referendum next month, were to be attended by justice minister Bekir Bozdag and economics minister Nihat Zeybekçi.

However, authorities in Cologne and Baden-Württemberg said they were concerned the rallies would attract far more people than the venues could handle.

While Mr Zeybekçi has vowed to go ahead with his rally on Sunday in Cologne in a new venue, the cancellation of Mr Bozdag’s rally on Thursday evening prompted the minister to cancel a planned meeting with his German counterpart Heiko Maas. Instead he flew back to Turkey from Strasbourg, denouncing the German attitude as “anti-democratic”.


“Turkey is a free country, every German politician can talk everywhere with us,” said Mr Bozdag.

Sharp retort

His remarks prompted a sharp retort from Germany’s foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, saying Turkish visitors were welcome but electioneering events were not.

Vowing to resolve the issue as soon as possible, Mr Gabriel added: “The damage that exists is extraordinarily large”.

Michael Pfeiffer, mayor of Gagenau in the Baden region, said the organisers of the event in his town had not said the Turkish justice minister or ambassador would attend an event, promoted heavily on social media.

“We feared the hall would not be nearly large enough to meet demand,” he said. “This is our decision, one we didn’t discuss with any higher political instance, and it is not a political decision on whether an event is good or not.”

In Cologne, authorities said the original booking for a local town hall was for a theatre event and then an “information event” for the April 16th referendum, with no clue that it was political rally with Mr Zeybekçi.

“The event can and will not happen there,” said a Cologne city spokeswoman.

Immigrant population

Two weeks ago, Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim attracted a crowd of about 20,000 to a rally in Germany.

Germany has the biggest population of Turks in the world outside of Turkey, about three million, linked to a legacy of economic immigration going back to the 1960s. But Berlin has long been wary of political rallies since Mr Erdogan, in 2010, warned supporters in Cologne that assimilation into German culture was a “crime against humanity”.

Among the aftershocks of July’s failed putsch are a spike in asylum applications in Germany from Turkish citizens and what Chancellor Angela Merkel attacked as the “disproportionate” jailing pending trial of a German-Turkish journalist for alleged terror links.

But the chancellor knows any further strain on Ankara-Berlin relations could endanger an EU-Turkey refugee swap deal she helped engineer to reduce arrivals in Germany.

It’s just the latest Turkey dilemma for the chancellor after a German satirist mocked Mr Erdogan as a paedophile last year, and the Bundestag described as genocide the 1915 massacre by the Ottoman empire of 1.5 million Armenians.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin