Of all that is at stake in Turkey’s spat with Europe, perhaps nothing is more fragile than President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pride.
He fills an outsized global role these days and any hint of humiliation at not getting his way in the Netherlands will not sit well at home – where he generally does get his own way.
When rebuffed by Germany a week and half ago and by the Netherlands this week, he accused both of Nazi inclinations.
His incendiary words brought sharp rebuke from both countries, the Dutch reminding him of the 200,000 people killed by Nazi forces.
This weekend his ministers were due to address expat Turks in the Netherlands to get their support for a Turkish referendum that will transfer and consolidate Turkey’s powers in Erdogan’s hands alone.
But in attempting to further eclipse democracy in his country, Erdogan appears to have overlooked Holland’s impending elections where immigration is a key issue. The Netherlands – where his Foreign Minister and Minister of Families were denied permission to address rallies – goes to the polls on Wednesday.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he doesn’t think Erdogan was intent on upsetting the Dutch elections but that his ministers tried to force their way in to his country against the direct wishes of the Dutch government.
According to Rutte, his government was in negotiation with Foreign Minister Mevlet Cavusoglu to speak at a small gathering in Rotterdam. During the negotiations Cavusolglu threatened unspecified action if he didn’t get his way.
For Rutte that was a red line: “we stopped talks … when the Turkish Foreign Secretary started threatening us with sanctions.” That’s when Cavusolglu was denied permission to land at Rotterdam airport.
Hours later, undaunted, another of Erdogan’s ministers tried to make it to Rotterdam to give a speech. Families Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya drove in from Germany but was later escorted back to the border by Dutch police.
Populist nationalist Geert Wilders, who campaigns on an anti-Muslim agenda, has been neck and neck with Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. Over the weekend, he sought to gain advantage from the discord, tweeting to the Families Minister to “go away and never come back” and to “take all your Turkish fans from The Netherlands with you please.”
If he could, Wilders would take the Netherlands out of the EU and close down its open borders that allowed Erdogan’s minister to drive unhindered in to Holland from Germany.
At any other time this might have been a small diplomatic skirmish, but this is not a normal time.
Post Brexit, post Trump, Europe faces a round of elections where populist nationalists like Wilders thrive on immigration issues and pose an existential threat to the EU.
Erdogan has emerged as an increasingly influential leader, a key global partner on counter-terrorism, a necessary ally for the US in Syria as well as new partner for Russia in the same conflict, not to mention a vital floodgate holding back refugees from pouring in to Europe.
All this against a backdrop of increasing European unease at Erdogan’s political reforms in Turkey that appear to many European diplomats to benefit only him and his cronies, taking him farther from his stated goal of EU membership.
Since the coup attempt last July, Turkey has shut down nearly 140 media organizations, arrested 41,000 people and thrown about 100,000 others out of their jobs.
Now the stage has slowly been set, Erdogan has his hands on levers that are already triggering tremors across the continent; however uncomfortably that sits with European governments.
Brexit was won on the issue of immigration, fueled by images of refugees streaming into Europe and compounded by fears of radical Islamist terror attacks.
Today the same fears fuel the populist narrative all across northern Europe. Not just by Wilders in the Netherlands but French Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, whose country goes to the polls next month, and where she too has vowed to lead the country out of the EU if she wins.
Across Europe in the coming months more countries go to the polls and in most established parties face an erosion of support to nationalist populists in one shape or another.
To a degree, Erdogan holds the key to Europe’s status quo: halting refugees crossing into Europe from Turkey (albeit as the result of a 6 billion euro deal with the EU) and cooperation around counter-terrorism stemming ISIS’ insidious incursion into Europe to show the strength of his hand.
Yet in his handling of this recent diplomatic spat, Erdogan appears to show a brittle side to his personality. His actions reinforce European concerns that he is becoming increasingly autocratic.