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[Leonid Bershidsky] Merkel’s blunder doesn’t justify Brexit

Advocates of the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union have pounced on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ill-advised decision to allow the prosecution of satirist Jan Boehmermann for an obscene poem about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

To them, the German leader has illustrated the unacceptable compromises the European Union’s dysfunctional nature forces nations to accept. That may be right to a degree, but Merkel is walking a domestic tightrope, and she’s beginning to wobble.

Earlier this week, London Mayor Boris Johnson, one of the most eloquent campaigners for a U.K. exit, wrote a column criticizing Merkel for not rejecting Erdogan’s demand that Boehmermann be prosecuted:

“The process of EU integration means the wholesale erosion of democracy; and it would seem that protecting that process means the erosion of free speech as well. The whole thing is infamous.”

Johnson is not alone. In a blog post for the Spectator, Douglas Murray announced an Erdogan limerick contest, and a reader contributed a 1,000-pound ($1,430) prize for the winner, to be announced by June 23 -- the day of the referendum on withdrawal, “because we may not be able to announce it after that point.” Referring to Erdogan’s efforts to protect himself from criticism in Turkey, Murray wrote,

“Many of us had assumed that these lese-majeste laws would not yet be put in place inside Europe. At least not until David Cameron succeeds in his long-held ambition to bring Turkey fully into the EU. Yet here we are. Erdogan’s rule now already extends to Europe.”

These critics assume that Merkel’s motivation is to appease Erdogan and preserve a shaky deal to alleviate the refugee crisis that depends on Turkey’s resolve to accept illegal immigrants deported by EU nations. The chancellor’s motivation is probably much more complex, though.

The prosecution of Boehmermann is extremely unpopular with German voters. So, too, is an open-door policy toward refugees. Merkel now has to figure out which of two bad options is worse.

She must have decided that getting a handle on the refugee crisis is more important, primarily because it’s increasingly hurting her with her own party. Her political mentor, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who has avoided politics in recent years, has come out with harsh criticism of Merkel’s policy on refugees. On April 17, the daily Der Tagesspiegel published the preface to the Hungarian edition of his book, entitled “Out of Concern for Europe,” which contained the following quote about refugees:

“The solution is to be found in the affected regions. It is not to be found in Europe. Europe cannot be the new homeland for the millions of people who are in danger worldwide.”

Kohl presented this for publication in Germany ahead of his April 18 meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, an admirer and something of a protege in the 1990s. Orban, who has taken a leading role in Eastern Europe’s fight against accepting refugees, asked for a quiet meeting, but Kohl chose to publicize it, which was interpreted as a way to express his dissatisfaction with the way Merkel has steered his party, CDU, on immigration.

Kohl is a respected figure in CDU ranks, an elder statesman, one of the fathers of the modern EU who set up Germany‘s leadership by pushing through the country’s unification. His view of the union includes closer ties with the eastern European nations, which he helped liberate from Communism. The irritation of Hungarians, Czechs and Poles with Merkel doesn’t fit the party’s mission as established under Kohl.

Merkel is sensitive to intraparty rebellions, and it’s important to her to preserve the deal with Turkey. That doesn’t mean that she wants to impose Erdogan’s laws on the German press, as the British commentators suggest. It’s in Merkel’s nature to find compromise and make trade-offs. Handing Boehmermann to the justice system -- which most likely will acquit him or hand him a light sentence, though certainly not send him to prison -- may cause less damage to her than letting off the comedian and endangering the deal with Turkey.

That doesn’t sound principled, and it damages Merkel’s image as a leader who stands up for liberal values. Yet she’s a politician in a tough spot, and Boehmermann helped put her there.

As Merkel announced her decision to let the prosecution proceed, she said that the German law against insulting foreign countries’ leaders would be abolished by 2018: She has no intention of putting “lese-majeste laws in place inside Europe.” Her efforts at damage control may be cynical and unsavory, but they indicate nothing about the EU’s supposed undemocratic leanings -- on the contrary, these decisions have to do with German politics. U.K. politicians play such games, too.

By Leonid Bershidsky

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a Berlin-based writer, author of three novels and two nonfiction books. -- Ed.