Turkey has never been in this position before

Turkey has never been in this position before

The tension between Turkey and European countries over allowing propaganda speeches for the April 16 referendum campaign reached a dangerous peak when the Dutch authorities barred a Turkish minister from entering the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam on the evening of March 11.

More than that, the Dutch police not only barred Turkish Family and Social Affairs Minister Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, but also detained her bodyguards, seized escort cars and forced her to leave the country for Germany in the early hours of March 12.

Earlier on March 11, the Dutch government cancelled the flight permit of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in order to stop him from entering the country to meet with Turkish citizens in the Netherlands to promote a “Yes” vote in the referendum.

Earlier in the week, Çavuşoğlu was barred from making a public speech in Germany and had to deliver his speech to a group of Turkish citizens admitted into the Turkish consulate building there. That was in spite of a 2008 law issued with ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) votes prohibiting the use of diplomatic representations for domestic propaganda purposes. Still, such are the unfolding events that it’s easy to forget such details.

The Austrian government was fast enough to issue a law last week, not particular to Turkey, banning the domestic political activities of all countries in Austria.

President Tayyip Erdoğan vowed on March 12 that the Netherlands will “pay the price” for barring a Turkish minister from entering the Turkish consulate compound, which as Çavuşoğlu stressed is technically Turkish soil according to the Vienna Convention. Meanwhile, angry protestors in Istanbul managed to get into the Dutch consulate compound and replace the Dutch flag on the mast with a Turkish flag. The Dutch government then stated that the security of their diplomats in Turkey was the responsibility of the Turkish government.

The spat comes at a time when Turkey and the EU are passing through another crisis, much graver than the one experienced in 2015-16 over the control of refugees triggered by the Syria civil war.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that the Netherlands would not let Turkish government officials carry their domestic political agenda into the country. That is especially important before the March 15 general election, where Rutte is threatened by right-wing leader Geert Wilders who is leading a xenophobic campaign often referencing Turkey.

The result is that domestic political issues in the Netherlands and in Turkey have escalated tension into a stand-off between two NATO member countries and good trading partners. Wilders wants to antagonize the atmosphere by cornering Rutte in order to attract votes from the mainstream to his nationalist right wing.

And the AK Parti in Turkey wants to win votes for the constitutional shift due to be voted on in a referendum on April 16, aiming to concentrate all executive power in the hands of the president. 

The AK Parti has in previous elections and referendums always benefited from domestic antagonism by agitating against the opposition. However, the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has decided not to opt for an antagonistic referendum campaign focusing on an anti-Erdoğan stance. Now, when EU countries started to turn down the AK Parti ministers’ demands to attend meetings, the government refocused its campaign on Europe, searching for a national unity that it hopes to convert into support for “yes” in the referendum. 

CHP head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has said that if the government is planning to take action against the Netherlands’ “humiliating and unacceptable” move, the CHP would support it. But he also noted that this has nothing to do with the referendum, as it is a question of national pride. The AK Parti has taken the opportunity to say the German and Dutch blocks show that people should unite around the “yes” vote, while Kılıçdaroğlu has cancelled his party’s own campaign plans abroad due to the developments.

It is certainly true that the current antagonism has perhaps given a momentum to the AK Parti campaign, which has lacked the desired excitement so far. However, that has come at the dear cost of a further hit at the reputation of the Republic of Turkey.

The country has never been in this position before. A Turkish foreign minister has never before been asked to not come to the territory of an ally country with which Ankara has friendly relations. A Turkish cabinet minister has never been barred from entering a Turkish consulate compound by police. A minister has never been declared persona non grata and escorted by the police out of the country. 

It is perhaps not the time and place now to talk about other difficult areas of Turkish foreign policy, for example the loss of ground in Syria where two rivals, the U.S. and Russia, are effectively cooperating to protect a Kurdish militant group that Turkey considers a terrorist organization. But up until 10 days ago Turkey was asking the EU to speed up the visa flexibilities agreement, which is part of the migrant flow deal, while ministers are now having to wait in line to be accepted into those countries - despite carrying diplomatic passports - in order to campaign with Turkish citizens there.

It is sad to see that the main priority of Turkey’s centuries-old diplomatic heritage is nowadays to find a European city where Turks are living for ministers to carry out their referendum campaigning.

It is also sad to see European diplomacy falling apart. Besides failing to set a good example for freedom of speech, the German and especially the Dutch way of handling the crisis have only deepened antagonism and further lost the sympathy of the Turkish people. 

The current stand-off should come to an end through diplomatic means, as it has become an embarrassment for all involved.