Turkey's Europe feud widens, and politicians on both sides may reap rewards

Turkey's Europe feud widens, and politicians on both sides may reap rewards
Turks protest outside the Dutch consulate in Istanbul on Sunday after Turkish Family Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya was banned from entering the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam to campaign for constitutional changes. (Emrah Gurel / Associated Press)

The feud between Turkey and the Netherlands keeps escalating, and with crucial votes on the horizon in both countries, some leaders are reaping immediate political benefits from the dispute despite the long-term perils of a deeper rift between Turkey and the West.

Political campaigns in each country carry overtones of national pride, sovereign identity and the weight of history — all of which also play into an ongoing dispute.


Dutch parliamentary elections are being held Wednesday, a contest which, in the age of President Trump and Britain's planned exit from the 28-nation European Union, is being far more closely watched than usual. The vote-getting ability of the divisive populist candidate Geert Wilders is seen as a potential bellwether for elections elsewhere in Europe this year, most notably in France and Germany.

Turks, for their part, will decide next month whether to endorse constitutional changes that would strengthen the hand of an authoritarian-minded leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The referendum comes as Erdogan has taken an increasingly hard line toward the West, despite Turkey's status as a NATO member.

The two political contests, each emotionally freighted, come at a time when it would be difficult for either side to back down in a high-profile test of wills, even one between ostensible allies.

The clash has centered on the Erdogan government sending surrogates to woo voters among expatriate Turks in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. Many of the millions of Turks living and working on the continent are eligible to cast ballots in Turkey's April 16 referendum. About 400,000 Turks live in the Netherlands.

Over the weekend, Dutch authorities denied landing rights to the Turkish foreign minister and prevented another Turkish government minister from addressing a referendum rally in the port city of Rotterdam, prompting a furious outcry in Turkey. Channeling public outrage, Erdogan said the Netherlands' action smacked of Nazism, an accusation he had previously leveled at Germany over the same issue.

Monday brought little in the way of de-escalation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had previously urged Erdogan to refrain from bandying around so devastatingly laden a term as "Nazi," expressed solidarity with the Netherlands. Dutch officials warned their citizens in Turkey to exercise caution.

Turkey said it was weighing possible sanctions against the Netherlands, and Erdogan announced Monday on national television that he would seek redress for the exclusion of Turkish ministers in the European Court of Human Rights — something of an ironic reversal, with Europe's long history of human-rights criticisms of his government.

As the dispute has deepened, more parties have been drawn in. France allowed a weekend rally on the Turkish referendum on free-speech grounds, but Denmark, Austria and Switzerland joined the Netherlands and Germany in citing security concerns over campaign appearances on their soil by Turkish officials.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, issued a statement that did not mention Erdogan by name but was seen as aimed at him, urging a halt to "excessive statements and actions."

In Turkey, the Netherlands' ambassador was out of the country when the dispute erupted, and Erdogan's government said it was best for the envoy to stay away.

The Turkish foreign ministry on Monday summoned the ranking Dutch envoy, the charge d'affaires in Ankara, for a formal protest after Dutch police over the weekend employed water cannons and police dogs to disperse demonstrators.

Aggrieved and nationalistic appeals have long been a page in Erdogan's political playbook, and his latest rhetoric appeared to bear out that pattern.

"Nazism is alive in the West," the Turkish leader declared, adding that the Netherlands and its allies had shown their "true face."

Turkish opposition leaders chimed in as well with anti-Dutch and anti-European statements.

As the Dutch vote approaches, center-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte has been pushed further right as he seeks to fend off a challenge from Wilders, who has called for extreme measures such as banning the Koran.

With Wilders' party seen as likely to emerge as the second-largest in parliament, polls suggested that standing up to Turkey was a chance for the Dutch leader and his party to make inroads among voters who are anxious over immigration but not ready to embrace Wilders' openly anti-Muslim views.

In the course of the campaign, Rutte has at times adopted language that seems an echo of his opponent's more inflammatory discourse. Earlier this year, for example, he declared that immigrants should act "normal" or leave.

He has demanded an apology from Erdogan over the Nazi references, and in a interview broadcast Sunday, rejected any attempt to "blackmail" his government.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks during a rally in Istanbul on Sunday.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks during a rally in Istanbul on Sunday. (Associated Press)

On each side, analysts noted, the European-Turkish clash has come to crystallize a certain subset of voter sentiment.

Turks have long bridled at what the Erdogan government routinely paints as European arrogance and meddling. The Turkish leader has been fuming for months over Western criticism of his wide-ranging purge of political opponents after a failed coup attempt in July. Turkey's onetime ambitions to join the EU are already seen as moribund, but European commentators deemed the current flap a likely nail in the coffin.

Europe, meanwhile, is grappling with a public backlash against Muslim immigrants and a marked rise in nationalist sentiment as it heads into election season.

The latest big wave of immigrants and asylum-seekers in Europe is mainly made up of people from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, not Turkey. But as this dispute has unfolded, expatriate Turks have found themselves an unwilling symbol — in the eyes of some voters, at least — of fears about security, the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and some Muslims' ability to assimilate.

If the confrontation continues, or becomes even more acrimonious, the ramifications could be serious.

Sanctions and counter-sanctions could cost Europe and the Turks billions in trade, investment and tourism. And Turkey's minister in charge of European Union affairs urged a review of a migration deal with the bloc that over the last year has stemmed the huge influx of mainly Muslim asylum-seekers making their way to Europe via Turkey.

Some analysts predicted the entire affair would eventually blow over, though at a cost.

"The situation will calm down," said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. "But at the same time… the toxic rhetoric will leave some permanent damage in the relationship."

Staff writer King reported from Washington and special correspondent Farooq from Istanbul.