What started as a minor disagreement between Turkey and the Netherlands has now expanded into an unprecedented diplomatic spat. Turkish attempts to hold rallies in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands have been blocked - and President Erdogan is now using this to his advantage.
In April, Erdogan will hold a referendum on changes to constitutional powers in Turkey. This has been his goal for a long time. Even the slight possibility of losing terrifies him. In Turkey the electorate has effectively been told they are ‘terrorists’ if they vote against the motion. Yet despite that, polls showed until recently that the vote was still split. That’s why Turkish ministers were on a campaign across Europe to rally Turkish expats. Germany has 1.4 million Turks, the Netherlands nearly half a million. Gaining support here is now all too important.
The row escalated when Erdogan described the Netherlands as a ‘Banana Republic’. An insult, you’d think, unless you’d heard his previous remarks suggesting the current Dutch government was the remnants of a Nazi regime. That proved too much for the normally level-headed Dutch, who at first shook their head before realising more than their pride had been hurt.
'He is wrong,' one man told me when I asked him about Erdogan’s remarks. 'We are fair, this is what we base our lives on,' he continued. When pushed, the man said he understood Turkey had felt provoked, but in true Dutch fashion concluded that 'both parties' needed to 'calm down' and discuss what had happened. Others were not so fair.
'I hope Turkey goes away,' said a man selling ice cream. 'Go away you crazy foreign people waving red flags,' he continued, before descending into a rant about Islam. This was echoed by many of those I stopped to question about events, not just in Rotterdam but in other cities and towns across the country too. It was as if Turkey had overstepped a line even the Dutch didn’t know existed.
'They need to apologise,' said a young man pushing a bicycle. His cheeks grew redder as I repeated some of the things being said in Ankara about his country. He took a breath before responding. 'I know they are upset,' before he echoed comments by Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister. 'Yes I know Turkey is a proud country, but these remarks are unacceptable, they should apologise.'
Others saw the argument as being politically motivated. And not just for Turkey. Here in the Netherlands, voters are about to go to the polls, in what is expected to be a highly divisive election. Politicians from both the ruling Liberal party the VVD and the far-right PVV, best known for its bleached blond leader, Geert Wilders, have been accused of using the situation to their own advantage.
Some say Rutte made the decision not to allow Turkey's ministers into the country because he was suffering in the polls. His party is expected to lose half its seats in the election, with Wilders' party picking many of them up. Many say they are casting a vote for Wilders because of his anti-immigration, anti-Islam stance and he is the only candidate standing up for traditional Dutch values.
This row with Turkey has seen Rutte re-establish a lead over Wilders for the first time in months. Meanwhile Wilders has used the spat to illustrate what he believes are the core issues his country faces; immigrant communities from predominantly Muslim countries. But of course the canny Turks are using this to advance their cause too.
'They are provoking us for their own purpose,' said a young man pushing a bicycle. Two others close by agreed. 'Erdogan is using us for his own political advantage,' they said. And there is a truth in that which rings true. Erdogan is trying to push through significant constitutional changes in Turkey, which would give him as President sweeping powers. If Turkish voters back the changes, the country will move from a Parliamentary to a Presidential Republic.
Many talk about Erdogan as if he is dictator. He is not, at least not yet. He is an authoritarian leader ready to take the next steps. In less than two short years Turkey has moved from a ‘democracy’ into a state of fear. Those who don’t support Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party have found themselves at the sharp end.
Thousands of people have been jailed in less than nine months; judges, teachers, lawyers, journalists. All are accused of being enemies of the state. The reality is that almost all questioned the politics of Erdogan and his party and for that they have been silenced. Yet despite the imprisonment of so many of Turkey’s liberal voices, little has been said by foreign governments. Particularly the EU, which apparently holds freedom of speech so highly.
So is this diplomatic spat a game-changer? Before the Netherlands waded in, Germany had already banned the Turkish Foreign Minister from attending rallies in Germany. But it was the mild-mannered Netherlands which took the dispute to a whole new level. This emboldened Switzerland and Austria to cancel Turkish referendum rallies too. And now as the voices from Ankara condemn EU countries louder and louder, they are fighting back, with a war of words. The Netherlands can count on Germany’s 'full support and solidarity' said Angela Merkel. France, which had allowed the Turkish Foreign Minister to take part in a rally on its soil, also chimed in, saying comments about Nazism were ‘unacceptable’.
Turkey has responded with more than just words. It has now banned the Dutch ambassador and diplomatic flights. Time and time again, Erdogan has said he is ‘standing up for the Turkish’ people. His performance has almost always been a hit in Turkey. He knows how to win a crowd, particularly when he has been backed into a corner. This latest story -- in which Turks are told they are being 'looked down on' by their EU host nations -- plays neatly into Erdogan's hands.
The path to constitutional change and full presidential powers initially began as a slow burner. For more than a decade Erdogan kissed the hands of EU countries. He forged economic deals, built his country into a world player and bided his time to make his move. Yet just as he thought all the cards were in his favour, an election in 2015 didn’t quite go to plan and he failed to gain the majority he had been expecting.
Now the polls show support for constitutional change is increasing and it’s unlikely that Turkey will resist the desires of its president. But power in the hands of one person, unchecked, is a slippery slope. It may be granted in a democratic way, but already we can see freedom of speech being eradicated at every level in Turkey. These new powers could mark the absolute end of the Turkish Republic and see the beginning of a new regime, one which may look to assert itself against the West.