BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany and the rest of Europe should back the “democratically minded” majority of Turks who do not support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Germany’s foreign minister said in remarks likely to hurt Berlin’s relations with Ankara further.
The comments by Sigmar Gabriel at a campaign event on Monday evening for his Social Democratic Party (SPD) represented a hardening of Berlin’s position towards its NATO ally and came after Erdogan urged German Turks to boycott Germany’s main parties in a vote on Sept. 24.
“More than half the country is democratically minded. They didn’t support him,” Gabriel said at the meeting in the western Saarland region.
“I believe that many in Turkey are counting on Europe and Germany supporting Turkish democracy and not looking on helplessly.”
The remarks, coming after Erdogan told Gabriel to “know his place” and describing Germany’s main parties as “enemies of Turkey”, are likely to anger Turkey.
Erdogan accuses Germany of harbouring plotters behind last year’s bloody coup attempt against Erdogan. Turkey has arrested 50,000 in a crackdown, including European-Turkish citizens. Western politicians say the dragnet is a pretext for Erdogan to rid himself of his opponents.
Lawmakers from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat party and the Left party at the other end of the political spectrum urged the government to consider freezing the foreign assets of Erdogan and his inner circle.
“We need immediate and direct sanctions against Erdogan and his associates,” said Sevim Dagdelen, foreign affairs spokesman for the Left party.
Home to some 3 million people of Turkish descent, Germany has traditionally had good relations with Turkey, which is also a major trade partner and tourist destination for German sun-seekers.
But, with parliamentary elections due next month, the tensions have badly dented Turkey’s image in Europe’s largest economy.
In his remarks on Monday evening, Gabriel was cautious on sanctions, saying Germany did not want inadvertently to hit “the small restaurant owners and waiters on the west coast.”
Writing in Der Spiegel magazine, Gabriel said Germany should also identify Turkish groups in Germany which oppose Erdogan and provide them with financial assistance to counter what he called Turkish government influence over three million Turks through satellite channels and mosques funded by Ankara.
“Erdogan’s provocations promote a fundamental conflict of values,” he wrote in joint column with Justice Minister Heiko Maas, also a Social Democrat. “He wants to push our Turkish friends in Germany towards a culture war.”
The latest escalation in Ankara’s war of words with Berlin was triggered by Turkey’s use of an Interpol red notice to have Turkish-German writer Dogan Akhanli arrested in Spain. Accused of terrorism, Akhanli has been released but must remain in Spain while authorities assess Turkey’s extradition request.
“I always thought I was safe in European countries and that the long hand of arbitrary arrogance couldn’t reach me here,” said the activist, who spent long periods in jail for left-wing activism before fleeing Turkey in 1991.
Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Richard Balmforth