A diplomatic spat between Turkey and the Netherlands sparked violent protests in Rotterdam on March 11. Dutch police used water cannon to disperse the crowd of over 1,000 people outside the Turkish consulate.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s description of the Dutch as "Nazi remnants and fascists”, in response to the refusal of landing permission for a plane carrying Turkey’s foreign minister earlier in the day, fuelled the growing diplomatic rift between the two countries.
The foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, was bound for Rotterdam where he was due to speak at a rally called to support Erdogan’s campaign for a Yes vote in the upcoming April 16 referendum, aimed at securing an executive presidency with sweeping powers.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is just days away from a general election he is likely to win, said the jibe was "way out of line", adding: "It's a crazy remark, of course." But some analysts immediately questioned whether the Dutch had been gulled into a move that could boost the Turkish leader on the campaign trail among nationalist voters.
The Turkish referendum is set to take place on April 16 and many analysts have commented that, with campaigning now moving into full gear, the row with the Dutch was manufactured by Erdogan to boost his chances in the poll. He has been posturing as a tough man, taking many leaves out of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook such as claiming Turkey is surrounded by enemies and playing the nationalist and strongman cards. To highlight his affinity with Russian tactics, Erdogan was in Moscow at the end of last week to strike a range of military and economic deals with his counterpart there.
Certainly Erdogan has been causing trouble in Europe recently, perhaps due to sour grapes following Turkey’s failure to make any progress towards accession to the EU, after years of trying. Erdogan’s attack on the Netherlands follows the row he caused on the weekend of March 4-5 by accusing Germany of pursuing “Nazi practices”. He made the comment after local governments in the country cited security reasons for refusing permission for rallies similar to the one Cavusoglu was intending to address in Rotterdam, before it too was cancelled due to security concerns. The German justice minister’s reaction to that remark was that it was “absurd, disgraceful and outlandish.”
However, the Turkish president’s comments are expected to play well at home, where analysts say substantial parts of the electorate respond positively to conspiracy theories centred on Western “oppressors’” attempts to undermine Turkey.
Protest turns violent
The stand off over Turkey’s foreign minister ended with violent protests outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam on the night of March 11. Dutch police closed off the road outside the building and Turkey said that its ambassador, who is on leave, will not return to work for the time being. An angry crowd of over 1,000 people, reportedly mainly Turks living in Holland, gathered outside the consulate as night fell. Police on horseback used water cannons to break up the protest when it became violent.
The focus on domestic politics being played out on Dutch soil was highlighted by the fact that Cavusoglu was due to address a rally of Turks to drum up support for Erdogan’s referendum. There are 5.5mn Turks living outside the country, with 1.4mn eligible voters in Germany alone - and the Yes campaign is keen to get them on side. Cavusoglu was due to be joined by Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, Turkey's family minister, who arrived by road on March 11 ahead of her planned rally and tried to make her way to the Rotterdam consulate, but was instead escorted to the German border by Dutch police.
The Turkish pro-government press were quick to milk the whole episode for maximum benefit. “The Dutch army has only 48,000 troops, but 400,000 Turks live in the Netherlands," the Yeni Akit Gazetesi splashed on a banner headline the next day. There were many tulip barbs too, as while the flower is associated with Holland today the bloom was originally from the Ottoman empire. “Tulips have not made [the Dutch] real men,” Cavusoglu told reporters. Back in Istanbul, protesters replaced the Dutch flag with a Turkish flag in the Netherland's Istanbul consulate, shouting “Allahuakbar”.
The whole affair smacks of a trap laid by a cunning Erdogan, a deliberate provocation that plays to his platform. But aggressive rhetoric will cause nervousness in EU capitals, especially following Erdogan’s trip to Moscow last week. Putin is also never one to miss the chance to create difficulties for the European bloc and has continued with the process of repairing Russian-Turkish relations. Erdogan and Putin were even scheduled to address the question of Turkey buying an advanced Russian surface-to-air missile system during their meeting.
Diplomatic tensions rise
Governments across the EU will also be worried that, citing provocations, Turkey might follow through on threats to relinquish its role as a key partner in the ongoing attempt to limit the movement of migrants into Europe. Last November, Erdogan threatened to “open the gates” if the EU reneged on commitments to provide billions of euros in aid, visa-free travel for Turks and accelerated EU membership talks. Last week Erdogan repeated these threats, saying all deals would be off unless the EU fulfils its promises – visa-free travel being top of the list.
While angry demonstrators took to the streets in Rotterdam, there have also reportedly been tense exchanges between officials. Following the refusal of landing permission to Cavusoglu, Ankara summoned the Dutch charge d'affaires to the foreign ministry for an explanation. Access to the residences of the Dutch ambassador, charge d’affaires and consul general were closed to traffic as tensions between the Nato partners escalated. Some news agencies also referred to the Turkish foreign ministry advising that the Dutch ambassador, currently on holiday, should stay away from Ankara for some time.
Erdogan also responded to the ban on his foreign minister by threatening to block Dutch flights, saying: "Ban our foreign minister from flying however much you like, but from now on, let's see how your flights will land in Turkey.”
Cavusoglu had warned that Turkey would impose heavy sanctions on the Dutch if his visit was blocked.
In a statement, Rutte then said that the Turkish threat of sanctions meant "the search for a reasonable solution is impossible". He added that his officials had discussed whether the planned rally could be made private, smaller-scale and relocated to a Turkish consulate or embassy.
In recent days, Austrian and Swiss officials have also banned referendum rallies at which Turkish officials were due to address expatriates. They too cited security concerns.