Daily Briefing

Mesut Özil and national identity

Özil ball 1800×1200
Source: DPA

Mesut Özil, a German soccer star who happens also to be of Turkish descent, is bowing out of the German national team, blaming racism and lack of respect. That should make everyone sit up. There are subtleties peculiar to Özil’s situation. But the bigger issue is one that applies to all open societies: the increasing ambiguity, complexity and tension surrounding national and personal identities.

If Özil can be blamed for anything, it is that he was naive when he posed, earlier this year, for photos with Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Özil now says that his gesture had “nothing to do with politics”. But the photos were taken during Erdogan’s election campaign, and Özil should have known that he was being used.

But Özil’s bigger point is legitimate: He has “two hearts, a German and Turkish one,” and by posing with Erdogan he was merely showing “respect for the highest office in the land of my family.” Millions of people in Germany and other countries feel the same way. That includes me. I happen to be a dual citizen of the US and Germany, and I’ve spent my whole life juggling multiple loyalties and identities as Özil has.

Özil thus speaks for many when he lashes out at the hypocrisy in the German soccer association, and in the press and society, who all want him to be German whenever the team wins, but then call him an immigrant or “other” when the team loses, as it did this year.

A similar debate is raging in the nation that now has the Cup, France. Do the French owe their victory to the many “Africans” on the team? Barack Obama, another person who has grappled with multiple identities, put it best in a speech in honor of Nelson Mandela. “Not all of those folks look like Gauls to me,” he remarked to laughter in the audience, “but they’re French. They’re French!”

Some people accept — and celebrate — this sentiment easily; others struggle with it, or find it threatening. From Hungary to Australia and the United States, democracies are having to decide whether they want to remain open and inclusive — at the cost of blurred identity — or whether to circumscribe and emphasize identity — at the cost of excluding compatriots and sowing strife.

Just look at Israel. It was founded by and for Jews, but it had always defined itself as an open democracy for all people within its borders, Hebrew or Palestinian, Jewish, Christian or Muslim. But last week, Israel passed a law that declares the right of national self-determination as “unique to the Jewish people”. This was a regrettable step in the wrong direction. Fortunately, many Israelis are now pointing that out.


Was this a head fake or the beginning of a breakthrough? America’s treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, suggested over the weekend, at a G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, that the EU and US should talk about a proper free-trade agreement. That idea sounds almost like the so-called TTIP, a transatlantic trade deal America and the EU were discussing before German lefties ranted against it hysterically and Donald Trump buried it.

But if the Germans (and Trump) hated TTIP 1.0, they might learn to love TTIP 2.0. After all, a free-trade deal represents a way out of the trade war that currently appears to be the alternative. The Germans, who fear that Trump will follow up on his steel and aluminum tariffs with duties on German cars, would be open to such talks. The French, however, seem to be playing hawks to the German doves, insisting that Trump must first stop pointing his gun at their heads if he wants to have a conversation.

So, Donald and Steve: Please put your guns back in your holsters; you’ve made your point. Berlin, Paris and Brussels: Please start thinking big and talking about radically free trade. You could start on Wednesday, when Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, and Cecilia Malmström, the EU’s trade commissioner, will touch down in Washington to meet Trump.


Another topic between The Donald and Germany is of course gas. Germany is building a second pipeline (called Nord Stream 2) that will bring Russian gas directly to Germany underneath the Baltic sea. Trump said the other day that this makes Germany “captive” to Russia. According to a new poll by Forsa, 84 percent of Germans think that assertion was nonsense, and 92 percent believe that Trump just wants to sell Germany more liquefied natural gas (LNG) from America.

Well, an idea is not bad merely because Trump also thought of it. Germany would do well to diversify its gas imports, for reasons of geopolitics, EU solidarity and climate change. That’s why it is good news that the government is finally pushing construction of a first terminal that could dock the huge and specialized ships that carry LNG. Call it a port in a storm.

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