Turkey versus Germany and Netherlands: why it happened and what to expect?The recent diplomatic crisis occurring between Turkey and the Netherlands raises question about the reasons for the rapid escalation of a standoff between the two countries. The unexpected diplomatic incident followed by the mutual accusations and harsh criticisms happened between the countries preparing for the critical elections which could have brought unintended results for the both governments in Hague and Ankara. However, it is impossible to analyze the issue without putting it into a broader framework of the approaching referendum in Turkey. 


The rise of the tension

It is necessary to mention that the scandal had been preceded by a similar, if not so exuberant, verbal clash between Ankara and Berlin over the same issue of pre-referendum propaganda. After the German authorities’ refusal to guarantee the security of two Turkish ministers campaigning for the “Yes” cause among the vast Turkish diaspora (no outright ban was made, in contrast to Netherlands), Erdoğan accused the Federal government in Berlin of interfering into the process and compared their methods to those of Nazis , putting the German authorities in a state of bemused irritation. 

Shortly afterwards, on the 11 March when the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu decided to visit the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam due to the referendum campaign and called the Turkish citizens in the Netherlands to gather around the consulate, the Dutch officials warned him about their plans to cancel the planned visit. Risks to public order and security in case of such rallies happening and their possible effects on the Netherlands’ election results which were going to take place in the wake of the anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiments, were shown by the Dutch government to be the reasons for such decision. 

However, Çavuşoğlu, having ignored the warning, decided to fly to Rotterdam which in the end resulted in the rejection of his landing rights by the Dutch government. A tension grew with the sudden arrival of Fatma Kaya, the Turkish Minister of Family and Social Policies, from Germany to Rotterdam by car and her attempt to enter the consulate was blocked by the police who later escorted her to Germany. This kindled the situation by igniting the protests by the local Turks in Rotterdam and the forceful intervention by the police against the protesters.  

In the aftermath, populist calls made by the Turkish President Erdoğan and Geert Wilders, the leader of the Netherlands’ far-right Freedom Party (PVV), added fuel to the fire by worsening the relations between the two countries. The fierce reaction by the Dutch government should possibly be linked with the fear of losing the election to the PVV which could strategically exploit any inaction by the Rutte’s cabinet as a sign of its weakness and increase its share of vote with the help of nationalist propaganda.  


In the pursuit of “Yes Men”

When looking at another actor of the row, it is not surprising to see Turkey as it has already become a “problematic child” in Europe under the Erdoğan’s rule. For the “Despot of Bosporus”, it is not the first time to stir an international scandal, one of the most famous examples of which was a Davos clash with the Israeli President years ago (however just Erdoğan’s accusations may have been, the very mode of making them was intentionally provocative).

It seems that Erdoğan still seeks to benefit from new “one minute” scenarios for his political ambitions although such “shows” would only affect the local electorate in the near short-term period while its repercussions for Turkey can be quite grave in future. The recent polls on the referendum signaled about the possible “No” to the Constitutional changes initiated by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) with the support of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Erdoğan is ready to play all his cards once again to gain the support of nationalists and anti-Western electorate.  It turned out that there are a considerable number of MHP (and even AKP) members who are against the so-called “one-man rule” which may reign in with the Constitutional amendments. Besides, there are still many uncertain voters whose decisions may strongly impact the results of the 16 April referendum. Therefore, forging a new foreign “enemy” can bring the disparities to a halt and strengthen the “Yes” side or at least distract the public from the possible negative outcomes of the changed Constitution.

It is not a secret that the Machiavellian leader of Turkey is ready to achieve his aims at the expense of many things. Recently, he has even  branded the supporters of the “No” campaign as Feto/PKK sympathisers or simply terrorists, the fact of which shows his use of false logical statements in order to affect the voters’ decisions. Such moves, being very dangerous, can sharpen the polarisation inside the Turkish society as well. But apparently, this does not bother Erdoğan, whose tactic has been drifting towards the conduct of a populism-driven campaign and blackmailing opponents instead of showing the possible benefits of the new changes. Indeed, this is the general weakness of the “Yes” campaign which targets the opponents rather than provides a clear explanation of the current situation and necessity for changes before voters. However, the chances for Erdoğan’s success should not be neglected as his sudden moves leave opposition parties baffled and they have to defend his stance in order not to look as “Western sympathisers” or “foreign elements”. This creates a playground for Erdoğan to dictate his rules and keep the development of the situation in favor of his aims.   

If President  indeed wanted to avoid the conflict with Europe, as he always claims, he would have avoided the rhetoric that deliberately hurt European sensitivities as it compared them to Nazis (the image Germany had been trying very hard to strip itself from), and unambiguously blamed for the alleged disrespect of human rights. The latter accusation seems rather comical in the light of the human rights situation in Turkey now, but it also could have been perceived in Berlin as a sign of ingratitude to a country that for the last 2 years had been the most active EU player in the Syrian conflict, created humane conditions for the millions of refugees flowing to Europe (and pushing other EU members to be more tolerant), and remained committed to a full-fledged dialogue with Turkey on security and humanitarian issues.Moreover, just before the diplomatic outbreak with Berlin a German journalist working in Turkey, Deniz Yucel, was incarcerated there on charges of “propaganda and incitement to hatred” . 

It can hardly be denied that the Turkish President’s recent behaviour towards Europe resembled a “chicken game” in which he tried to make them tolerate his seemingly hostile acts without reproaching. Of course, the “Western partners” are generally not supposed to take the measures they take now against a NATO member and an EU candidate country- but bearing in mind Turkey’s recent change in attitude towards their membership duties (Erdoğan stopped dangerously short of directly accusing NATO in the July 2016 putsch attempt) Ankara should have expected the symmetrical change in attitude, too. 


Erdoğan’s dangerous methods and their implications

Erdoğan’s reaction towards Turkey’s close economic partners and investors, namely, Germany and the Netherlands can indicate to the dire situation of his team before the Turkish referendum as the regime is faced with the serious opposition from the public and international community. Erdoğan’s criticism of “European democracy” regarding the current incidents does not resonate as he constantly oppresses free media and the opposition inside Turkey. Besides, rumours are spread that the unexpected visit of the Minister of Family and Social Affairs happened under the direct order of Erdoğan without informing the Prime Minister, the fact of which may result in the tensions between the AKP elite as well. Another important point to stress here is that the Prime Minister himself mentioned that the referendum campaigns in the Netherlands had been scheduled after the Dutch elections as the both sides had reached an agreement upon the request of the Dutch officials. Ironically, according to the 2008 amendments to the election laws of Turkey which were introduced by the ruling AKP party, it is forbidden to conduct electoral propaganda abroad and within the foreign representations of the Republic of Turkey. These facts show how the ruling Turkish government manipulates the discourse in order to shift the agenda along the ways suitable for them. 

However, populist foreign policy has huge downsides, as President Putin of Russia could have already discovered. By exacerbating the crisis to a point of absurdity, Erdoğan risks long-term relations with the EU that Turkey needs very much despite of her President’s attempts to deny that. When foreign “enemies” and their supposed “agents of influence” inside are brought as the ultimate arguments in the government’s rhetoric, the process is usually irreversible. After persuading the population that the EU leaders are the same “crusaders” as their remote ancestors and thus showing enmity with them to be something permanent, it will be extremely hard to play the situation back when needed. It can be now argued for sure that the EU integration for Turkey has now been postponed at least for a matter of decades, if not forever. Another reason to worry for Erdoğan is that his newly-made Russian friends do not seem to be very committed: they continue to back Assad’s regime, host a YPG office in Moscow and even refuse to lift most of the trade bans against Turkey implemented in the wake of the 2015 plane crisis. Thus, Ankara risks getting increasingly isolated, and this might be a huge blow to Erdoğan’s popularity that mainly rests on his attempts to turn Turkey into a pivotal player in the regional politics. 


Win-win game for both sides?

However, some opposition politicians and journalists even claim that there is a “silent agreement” between the leaders of the two countries about the outbreak of the crisis which could have helped them to succeed in the upcoming elections. As there is a rise of Islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiment in the Netherlands, the violent prevention of the Erdoğan supporters’ rally by the Dutch government could be considered as a possible move by the leader of the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) Mark Rutte to win the hearts and minds of the public and defeat Wilders whose party had earlier been predicted to get the largest Parliamentary fraction after the elections. Both Rutte and Wilders heavily focused on the diplomatic crisis during their last debate, so it could have been for the government’s good handling of the incident that the ultimate victory to the VVD is due. Hence, both governments played their roles very nicely by creating a tension and using it for their campaigns. As a result, the ruling party strengthened its position in the parliament by winning the recent elections whereas Erdoğan gained extra support inside the country. Some even called this a plot staged by Erdoğan and the European states to create the authoritarian system in Turkey and weaken its role in Europe as more authoritarian Turkey will completely move away from Europe and make it easier to reach a deal on different matters. However, the emergence of such a conspiracy is directed to demonise Erdoğan and the Western liberal elites and gain the votes from the nationalists for the rejection of amendments to the Constitution.  

Overall, we may witness new unpredictable political tensions in the upcoming months as the critical elections are going to be held in France and Germany in the environment of rising far-right populism. The possible effects of such incidents on the election results in Turkey are also important for Europe as the change of the political system in Turkey may bring negative consequences and trends with itself for the whole region.