A pair of small German towns have become the latest flashpoints in worsening diplomatic tensions between Ankara and Berlin, as Chancellor Angela Merkel defended decisions to cancel a rally backing political changes in Turkey.
Merkel on Friday defended the decision of officials in the town of Gaggenau to halt a political rally there, drawing a stream of attacks from Turkey, including from Ankara’s top diplomat, who threatened retaliation to the town’s move.
More than a million Turks living in Germany are eligible to vote in a Turkish referendum in April on constitutional changes which would boost the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The tension was highlighted by a bomb threat at Gaggenau’s town hall early Friday, prompting an evacuation. But police said they found nothing suspicious after a search.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned Germany of the consequences of halting the rally, which Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag was due to address.
“They want to stand in the way of a strong Turkey,” Cavusoglu said on Friday.
“It cannot go on like that,” Turkey’s chief diplomat said. “If you want to work with us, you have to learn how to behave towards us.”
Turkey would respond in kind, Cavusoglu said.
“Then you have to think of the consequences,” he said without specifying any details.
But speaking in the Tunisian capital of Tunis, Merkel said the decision to cancel the rally was made by the local authorities and questioned whether the right to freedom of opinion was being upheld in Turkey.
“We advocate freedom of opinion in Germany,” she said, telling journalists that Germany has a federal system of government where decisions about security at events are made at a local level.
She went on to say that Germany did not believe freedom of opinion is protected in Turkey, especially noting restrictions on the freedom of the press, given the recent arrest of German-Turkish reporter Deniz Yucel.
However, in a bid to ease tensions, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Cavusoglu are to meet next week in Germany, the Turkish news agency Anadolu said, quoting government sources in Ankara.
The planned Thursday speech by Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, a member of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), was to have been one of a series of events across Germany aimed at mobilizing Turkish voters in the country behind next month’s referendum.
Gaggenau’s mayor, Michael Pfeiffer, said the decision to cancel Thursday’s rally had been due to security concerns and had not been political.
“The whole thing of course takes on an enormous dimension for a small town,” Pfeiffer said.
Turkey’s efforts to rally support for the referendum suffered another blow Friday when a planned weekend speech in the western German city of Frechen by Turkish Economics Minister Nihat Zeybekci was also cancelled by local authorities.
Police say that the operator of the hall in the town of Frechen where Zeybekci was due to speak had informed rally organizers that the venue was no longer available.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim addressed Turkish voters at a campaign rally in the Rhineland town of Oberhausen last week.
But the German decisions come against the backdrop of renewed strains in relations between Ankara and Berlin over Yucel’s arrest.
He has been accused by the Turkish authorities of spreading propaganda from the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as well as the movement of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan believes was the mastermind behind last July’s failed military coup.
Yucel’s arrest came in the wake of growing tensions between Ankara and Berlin during the last 12 months.
Relations reached near boiling point after the German Bundestag’s decision last June to declare that the killing a century ago of as many as 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire was genocide.
But Berlin and the EU also need to ensure that Turkey remains part of a deal spearheaded last year by Merkel, which calls for Ankara to take back refugees arriving in Greece from Turkey in return for the EU providing financial support to shelter the refugees.
Bozdag lashed out Gaggenau’s decision to ban the rally, describing it as “a scandalous process which in the truest sense of the word is a fascist approach.”