Dutch-Turkish relations are at a record low, and this crisis is spreading in Western Europe. Germany, Austria, Denmark are also concerned about the possible tensions a debate on the Turkish referendum would create inside their Turkish minorities. The Turkish constitutional referendum will take place on the 16th of April 2017. Turkish citizens from home and from abroad will vote on a set of 18 amendments to the constitution. This reform is pushed forward by the President Erdoğan and his party, the AK party, and is also supported by one opposition party, the MHP. If voted, these amendments would strengthen the power of the president, abolish the Office of the prime minister, increase the number of seats in the parliament, and dramatically modify the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors in the president’s favour.
Such a referendum could be a purely internal political situation, but Erdoğan chose to also campaign next door towards the Turkish diaspora in the EU. This move was not welcomed by most countries with a significant Turkish population, France being the only exception where a Turkish political meeting in Metz was tolerated by the French Foreign Ministry. The situation is very different in the Netherlands, where the Turkish campaign lead to an unprecedented diplomatic crisis between the two countries.
First, the Netherlands forbade the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavusoglu, to land in Rotterdam because he wanted to participate to a local pro-Erdoğan rally. The Dutch authorities were afraid of possible security threats because of tensions in the local community, and also because they feared such a meeting could create public unrest and disrupt their own general election only a few days before the scrutiny takes place. This interdiction triggered violent pro-Erdoğan protests in the Rotterdam Turkish community.
Ankara was not pleased by this decision, and threatened to sanction the Netherlands if they did not allow their minister to conduce a pro-Erdoğan meeting in their country. The Dutch Foreign minister reiterated that Çavusoglu was not welcome, and that they do not want an internal Turkish political campaign to unfold in their territory. Turkey then ignored the Dutch political message and flew their Family minister to Germany, where she sneaked in the Netherlands by car. This undiplomatic move angered the Netherlands, and lead them to a diplomatic row with their Turkish counterparts. This dispute is likely to dominate the Dutch campaign in the few remaining days before the election, and is already spreading to other European countries.
The Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, postponed a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım to an undisclosed date. The same tensions are quickly emerging in Germany as well, where many towns forbade rallies for Turkish expats. Facing this opposition in Europe, Erdoğan compared the Dutch and German reluctance to see Turks campaign on European ground to a fascist attitude. The Turkish president even stated that “Nazi remnants” still exist in the West, and that forbidding Turkish rallies is a “Nazi-type practice”. These comments were met with stupor in Germany, where Angela Merkel demanded Erdoğan to stop this comparison because they amounted to “trivialisation of the crimes against humanity committed by national socialism”. The German intelligence chief subsequently entered the dispute by stating that Turkish rallies increase the Turkish espionage activity where they take place. The constitutional reform campaign supposedly gives Turkey a pretence to continue increasing their intelligence gathering in Europe. If true, this security argument reinforces the Dutch-German position on trying to keep the Turkish campaign out of their borders.
This diplomatic fight not only decisively worsens the Dutch-Turkish and the Dutch-German relations, but it also deteriorates the whole EU-Turkey partnership. EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn published this Monday a joint statement where they call for a “de-escalation” of tensions between the two sides, and where they ask Turkey “to refrain from excessive statements and actions that risk further exacerbating the situation”. Beyond the diplomatic phrasing, the European position leaves no doubt that the Union sides with its Member States. This episode might endanger the overall European-Turkish cooperation, and the EU is acutely aware of it. NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg is also worried about that this dispute between NATO members might undermine the transatlantic alliance’s effectiveness. And he might be proven right : this recent escalation of tensions lead one German MP to call for the withdrawal of German troops stationed in Turkey. Even one month before it is held, this Turkish constitutional referendum has already had a significant impact on the relations between Turkey and the West.