What begins in small concessions of principle generally leads to greater concessions. Germany might soon repeal Section 103 and Mr. Böhmermann may well be vindicated in court. But by now Mr. Erdogan knows that nothing is so morally flexible as a Western politician desperate to avoid a tough choice, so expect him to find new avenues to impose his will, and his values, on a pliable Europe.
That goes especially for Mrs. Merkel, who spent much of 2015 riding a wave of liberal congratulation (capped by being named Time’s Person of the Year) for her willingness to accept a million Mideastern refugees, no questions asked. Now those refugees, some of them ill-behaved, are provoking a political backlash of a sort that stirs uneasy German memories, and the chancellor needs the political easy way out from the consequences of her reckless humanitarianism. That turns out to mean a betrayal of the very liberal values she claims to champion.
The larger question is how far Mrs. Merkel and other European leaders are willing to bend to the likes of Mr. Erdogan and other autocrats. The deal with Turkey, Der Spiegel noted this week, “is more than just a piece of paper to Merkel—it’s proof that the refugee crisis can be solved with means other than barbed wire.” But what does it say about Mrs. Merkel’s fitness as a political leader that she would sooner risk the free-speech rights of German citizens than tend to the necessary if sometimes ugly business of national self-preservation?