Europe’s reputation stands and falls with its attitude towards bureaucracy. One regulation gone wrong, and we’re back to bendy bananas and the Eurocrats grimly destroying the freedom of countries with their rulers. Or such is the British perspective. For Germans the opposite is true. The European idea has always been seen as a way out of trouble: a gateway out of the small-mindedness associated with domestic bureaucracy, a path to more freedom, not less.
Perhaps unexpectedly, bureaucracy is something of a pet hate for Germans: we love our lives to be structured and organised, but we’re also afraid of Kafkaesque tendencies, where order doesn’t make life easier, but leans towards the downright sinister.
A recent example of such bureaucracy are the arrangements for the trial in Munich of Beate Zschäpe and four other members of the National Socialist Underground, a neo-Nazi terror cell, accused of killing nine men, eight of them of Turkish descent, between 2000 and 2006.
Germany and Turkey have had a complicated relationship, especially since Angela Merkel voiced her opposition to Turkey joining the EU. The German coalition is divided: the centre-Right wants to limit the relationship to what it calls a privileged partnership, whereas both liberal and social democratic voices are in favour of full accession.
Three months ago, Mrs Merkel declared her support for reviving Turkey’s stalled membership talks, but was sceptical that it would ever join. Others in her party are less circumspect, insisting a “country in Asia Minor” could never be part of Europe and urging an end to the talks. A clear majority of Germans sees things the same way. A recent poll revealed 60 per cent opposes Turkey’s EU membership. Add to this periodic waves of outrage over incidents of violent crime by groups of “young people of migrant background”, often code for youth of Turkish descent, and you have an atmosphere of mutual distrust that belies the fundamentally good relationship between the two countries. Germany is Turkey’s biggest trading partner, and bilateral trade has steadily increased in recent years. The relationship between both countries involves a lot of talking but no action, to the dismay of the estimated three to four million people of Turkish origin who live in Germany, including a prominent community in Berlin, not far from the seat of government.
A dispute had been brewing for months over the allocation of press seats in the Zschäpe murder trial. It is one of the biggest criminal cases in Germany for years and it inevitably shines a spotlight on the wider issues of racism and immigration.
Court officials claim that the media seats were allotted on a first-come, first-served basis during the accreditation process. Despite the Turkish origins of most of the victims, not a single journalist from a Turkish media outlet was given a reserved seat. Even the mother of one of the victims was refused.
The reaction has been widespread outrage. One Turkish daily took legal action and the Constitutional Court ordered the case postponed while the seat allocation was reviewed.
How could this happen? Was it just the fault of a civil servant who underestimated the domestic and international political dimensions of such a case? And why was it so difficult to show a little tact?
Some German journalists called for a video transmission of the court’s proceedings to a spillover room, others offered to give their seats to Turkish colleagues. However all these requests were rejected by the court. Rules are rules.
Which side to take turned out not to be a question of party affiliation, interestingly enough. One MP for the conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union called on the court to reserve ten out of the 50 media seats for foreign journalists, while the Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle expressed his understanding for the Turks’ demands but said he was unable to interfere with the court’s independence. Sigmar Gabriel, head of the centre-left Social Democrats, accused the court of “small-mindedness”.
The issue only added to simmering tensions over Mrs Merkel’s lukewarm stance towards Turkey’s EU membership and the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s occasional attempts to pose as the representative of Turks living in Germany.
The main reason for the court’s decision not to bend the rules is that it has to stay independent of political interference; Germany is strict about this for historical reasons. But a case like this reveals that dogmatic adherence to an apolitical stance by the judiciary can be betrayed by what we might call politics-in-action, and thereby exposes both what bureaucracy is and what it should be: an institution bound by humanitarian principles.
It needs what the British still possess, without too many rules and regulations: common sense.