Thursday

15th Nov 2018

Ozil's resignation highlights Europe's identity debate

  • Off the pitch migration debate is brewing across the EU (Photo: FIFA)

The resignation of star player of Turkish origin, Mesut Ozil from the German national team on Sunday evening and the following intense debate in Germany reflects the deep uncertainty around Europe over identity, migration and integration.

The Arsenal player Ozil, born in Germany to Turkish parents, announced in a statement that he would no longer play for Germany after what he said were feelings of "racism and disrespect".

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The 29-year-old Ozil, who won the World Cup in 2014 as part of the German squad, said he would quit after he was heavily criticised for posing for a photo with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May in London. Erdogan has been cracking down on opposition and the press at home.

The two have met before, but the May meeting took place during Erdogan's campaign for June's general election in Turkey, and following a deep row between Berlin and Ankara over Germany's refusal to allow Erdogan to campaign among Germany's over three million Turkish minority.

"I have two hearts, one German and one Turkish," Ozil wrote, adding: "For me, having a picture with president Erdogan wasn't about politics or elections. It was about me respecting the highest office of my family's country."

Ozil said he faced months of racist comments from politicians, fans and the German football association, which seemed to have hold him responsible for the German team's poor performance in this year's World Cup tournament.

"In the eyes of [German football association president Reinhard] Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose," Ozil wrote.

Ozil's resignation exposed a deeply-divisive debate in Europe about identity and migration during the World Cup and who can be considered 'European'.

The German-Turkish player's feelings of never really being accepted in his native Germany were echoed earlier by Belgian striker Rumalu Lukaku who wrote that when things were going well for his team, he was "the Belgian striker", and when things were not going so well, he was labelled, "the Belgian striker of Congolese descent".

A row also erupted around the French team that eventually won the Word Cup, and whose players are mostly from immigrant origins. South African comedian Trevor Noah was criticised by the French ambassador to the US for describing the French national team's victory as "Africa won the World Cup".

In a letter Gerard Araud – pointing to the French concept of citizenship – wrote that it is wrong to refer to the players' African identity.

"France is indeed a cosmopolitan country, but every citizen is part of the French identity and together they belong to the nation of France," the ambassador wrote. Noah responded saying both African and French identities should be celebrated.

The World Cup, where several European national teams have reflected their society's multiculturalism, also highlighted how the debate about identity fuels increasingly stronger anti-migration and anti-Islam populist parties across the continent.

While France's win was celebrated partly because of the players' mixed origin, it also enraged politicians such as Italy's interior minister Matteo Salvini, who – according to media reports – left the Moscow stadium early because of his tense relationship with France's president Emmanuel Macron over migration.

The finalist Croatian team's homogeneity was taken advantage of by politicians who oppose migration and boast about a homogenous, 'Christian' culture in Europe.

"The World Cup finals could be an important message for the future of Europe as an immigrant country plays a Christian country proud of its national identity. That's why go Croatia!," a Hungarian MP, Istvan Hollik from a Christian democratic party aligned with premier Viktor Orban's ruling Fidesz posted on Facebook before the final.

Turkey is a controversial ally to Europe.

The EU in 2016 signed a statement with Erdogan, who pledged to stem the flow of migration towards the continent.

Deep divide

The response on Monday to Ozil's resignation was divided in Germany.

"With all respect for the family roots, national players must be ready to accept criticism when they allow themselves to be used for election campaigning," tweeted the German government's integration commissioner Annette Widmann-Mauz.

Foreign minister Heiko Maas, a Social Democrat, dismissed the idea that Ozil was sending a message to minorities across Germany that integration is impossible.

"I don't believe the case of a multimillionaire living and working in England gives much insight into the success or failure of integration in Germany," he said.

Hard-right AfD leader Alice Weidel turned that around and said: "The integration dream doesn't work even with football millionaires." She described Ozil's "tirade" as a "typical example of failed integration".

Cem Ozdemir, the most prominent ethnic Turkish politician and former leader of the Green Party said that Ozil's photo remains "wrong and his explanation is unconvincing".

A spokeswoman for chancellor Angela Merkel, whose decision to allow hundreds of thousands of migrations into Germany in 2015 sparked a fierce debate in Europe about migration – said Monday that most of the roughly three million people with Turkish roots living in Germany were well-integrated.

Turkish justice minister Abdulhamit Gul on the other hand congratulated Ozil on his decision, which he deemed "the most beautiful goal against the fascist virus."

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