Analysis: Europe challenges Turkey's Erdogan, why now?

Over the weekend Holland stunned Turkey by preventing rallies over a proposed referendum, drawing fierce rebuke from Ankara.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during an iftar event in Ankara, Turkey, June 27, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during an iftar event in Ankara, Turkey, June 27, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Netherlands is a “Nazi remnant,” according Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On Saturday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was banned from flying to Rotterdam to give a speech, and Family and Social Policy Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya was deported to Germany. She tweeted: “democracy, fundamental rights, human rights and freedoms... all forgotten in Rotterdam tonight. Merely tyranny and oppression.” She called the Dutch actions “fascist” and wondered if Europe was really the “cradle of civilization.” Dutch police had to confront angry Turkish pro-Erdogan government protesters.
Dutch riot police break up demonstration in Rotterdom in support of Turkish president Erdogan (Reuters)
The vituperative comments heaped on the Netherlands come amid the Turkish president campaigning for an April referendum that would give him more powers. What is interesting is that not only the Netherlands, home to around 400,000 Turks, has sought to stop Turkish pro-Erdogan rallies. Germany, with a population that includes perhaps 4 million people with Turkish ancestry, has also tried to tamp down rallies. Austria and Switzerland have canceled them and Dogan News agency reported that in Stockholm a talk by a deputy chairman of the AKP, Erdogan’s party, was canceled.
Connect the dots and it is clear that there is a linkage between these Northern European states giving the cold shoulder to Turkey’s ruling party. The actions against the rallies have to be understood not as an anti-Turkish measure, but primarily an anti-Erdogan statement. This is because European states, especially those with large Turkish minority populations, see the internal issues of Turkey as important to Europe.
After the coup attempt last summer, a leading Social Democrat Bundestag deputy named Thomas Oppermann said, “When thousands of judges and prosecutors are removed [by the Turkish government], who had obviously nothing to do with the coup, then that is an attack on democracy.”
At the same time, European politicians were critiquing Ankara for mass arrests and firings of some 50,000 civil servants after the coup. Aydan Ozoguz, another Social Democrat in the Bundestag, said, “The intra-Turkish tensions between nationalists and Kurds, as well as between Erdogan-supporters and opponents, must not play out in Germany.” This is a reference to the fact that although some Turks in Europe are very pro-Erdogan, others are not.
Germany’s Alevi minority, around 500,000 people, are generally not pro-Erdogan according to a 2014 article on Deutsche Welle’s website. Neither are most Kurds in Europe. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has asked federal states to ban symbols associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and 33 associated images, such as those of jailed leader Abdullah Ocallan. Here Germany is trying to detach itself from Turkish politics.
The reactions of EU states such as Germany illustrate that they feel Turkey’s government has overstepped its bounds. In 2016, Ankara sought to get Berlin to prosecute comedian Jan Bohmermann for a poem insulting Erdogan in which the comedian had accused Turkey of repressing minorities. A German law at the time made it illegal to insult foreign heads of state. Bohmermann faced the possibility of several years in prison until a court ditched the case. Germany has repealed the law.
Berlin and Ankara have had tense relations since 2015 over refugees pouring into Europe, and Germany’s president saw Turkey as continually willing to threaten to use migrants as a way to get what it wanted. When German states began in early March refusing permission for rallies ahead of the referendum, Erdogan claimed that the Federal Republic’s “practices are not different from the Nazi practices of the past.”
In Austria in late February, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said Turkish campaigning was “not welcome,” alluding to it having a polarizing influence in his country. In the Austrian case Erdogan remained silent, leaving the Foreign Ministry spokesman Husyin Muftuoglu to say that “we do not accept those irresponsible comments that exceed their limits and the distorted mentality.” Austria was “biased and double-standard.”
Kurz was the target of death threats last year after he condemned Ankara’s decision to introduce the death penalty following the coup. Austria’s Chancellor Christian Kern has now called for an EU-wide ban on Turkish referendum campaigning.
Switzerland’s relations with Erdogan were affected when he called a referendum to ban construction of minarets there a “sign of an increasing racist and fascist stance in Europe in 2009.” The ban passed with 57% of the vote.
At home Erdogan has been riding a wave of nationalism and support since 2015. Abroad, however, especially in Europe, there is a feeling that Turkey’s government merits chastisement. The Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks is a constant critic, questioning the state of emergency after the coup attempt and criticizing Ankara’s war against the PKK. The conflict in southeastern Turkey has “caused violations of human rights in its own right, due to measures which involve problems of proportionality and legality.” A new UN report alleging Turkish abuses will empower EU politicians who oppose Turkey’s policies.
The overall context is that Europe is increasingly reticent to be a battleground for foreign politics often imported with migrants. It has faced these issues since the 1960s, but terrorist attacks, mass immigration and the rise of the extreme Right worry centrist politicians. The European Parliament voted last year to suspend talks on Turkey joining the EU. The EU also imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014, revealing a more muscular foreign policy.
For its part, Ankara wants visa liberalization and has threatened to cancel deals stemming the flow of migrants if it doesn’t get it. What Turkey’s leadership may have learned in the last week is that calling Europeans “Nazis” doesn’t make European states back down, rather it may cement a deeper antagonism.