A Dutch refusal to allow entry to Turkey’s Family and Social Policy Minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, has taken relations between Europe and Turkey to new levels of hostility. It also exposes the growing tensions Turkey has with the rest of the continent.
Turkey is experiencing an ugly referendum campaign, in which Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seeks to empower his office of President with a legislative basis for the authoritarian structure he has already built. The campaign is also taking place among Turkey’s large diaspora. The Dutch decision was the latest effort to deny international rights of assembly to a pro-government, “Yes” campaign that has bullied, imprisoned and intimidated “No” voters back in Turkey.
The result has been tit-for-tat conflict. With police using baton strikes to disperse a crowd of protesters in Rotterdam, in Istanbul a man meanwhile broke into the Dutch consulate and replaced the flag of the Netherlands with that of Turkey. At a time when nationalist brinkmanship between states seemingly becomes more commonplace, it is hard to imagine a more apt illustration of a breakdown in international norms and civility.
Turks are watching graphic images from Rotterdam, where pro-government Dutch Turkish protesters clashed with police, hit with batons and bitten by attack dogs. Germany has denied permission for a rally attended by President Erdoğan. There is similar uncertainty over rallies in Austria and Denmark. For many Turks, the scenes have confirmed suspicions that European nations see them and their compatriots as lower status.
Whatever the intent, there is no doubting that this humiliation feeds the very sense of Turkish exceptionalism that has been the bread and butter of the entire Erdoğan era. Just as Hillary Clinton calling a quarter of the US electorate “deplorables” helped recast Donald Trump as their protector, and sanctions against Russia gave Vladimir Putin something to blame his ills on, the Turkish protests have once again been used to ennoble the censored and shame the censor.
There are many valid grounds on which the Erdoğan regime might be prohibited from hosting rallies on European soil. The regime denies liberals, democrats and human rights defenders the same rights in Turkey. But this message is not being stated loud or clear. In Austria, a rally was cancelled on the grounds of fire regulations. Germany cancelled the rallies of some ministers while accepting others.
Turkish media, all of it now Erdoğan-controlled, has dutifully reported images of Turkish protesters kicking back at Dutch police, and presented it as a proud triumph for Turkey and its leader. Perhaps the most nuanced response from Europe has arguably been that of Cem Özdemir, Turkish-German co-leader of the German Green Party, who has argued that a right to demonstrate in Germany should be inherently linked to the frequently flouted right to demonstrate in Turkey.
On a broader level, controversy around the rallies also illustrates the complacency of EU countries regarding Turkish immigration. The German word for its Turkish workers, “Gastarbeiter”, is arguably the greatest clue to the failure on these terms. Translated as “guest worker”, this denotes a 2m-strong workforce windfall, as important to 20th century Germany as that of workers from the former colonies was to Britain. However, this population was never intended to permanently settle. The Erdoğan regime has not shied away from associating the protest spat with legitimate concerns about European Turks being treated as second-class citizens. The conflict underlines the fact that European countries treat Turkish communities only as cheap labour.
In this respect, the silencing of protest will be a bitter pill for those Turks, who resent, even hate, Erdoğan far more than any nationalist of Western Europe will ever understand.
European authorities have been blinded to the rise of pro-Erdoğan political cells within Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria, where Ankara is aggressively supporting faith networks and community groups. In so doing, Erdoğan’s AKP party has created a means of mobilising the enormous and comparatively wealthy constituency of Turkish voters around continental Europe.
Some onlookers will conclude that this demonstrates the wisdom of pulling up the drawbridge with Turkey. But the escalation itself points to the failure of leaving Erdoğan to his own devices. Having grown up poor and in rough neighbourhoods of Istanbul, the Turkish President has an intuitive knack for realpolitik and understands all too well the bargaining power he enjoys over Europe as a result of his ability to control the flow of Syrian refugee populations.
Although some within the Turkish state, and even within the AKP, will see clearly that Erdoğan’s escalation with the Dutch is a liability, his rapport with the party’s rank-and-file, both inside Turkey and without, remains untroubled. A youth branch of the AKP stabbed and squeezed oranges in one protest against the Dutch and its national colours, a style of politics that is at once juvenile but menacing.
For all its ridiculousness, what this should make plain is the commitment of Erdoğan’s acolytes. A decade ago, online communities who now mobilise for Donald Trump were creating “google bombs” by skewing search suggestions with synchronised questions about Zionists and a New World Order. Other anti-liberal movements have a similar long and determined history. Such movements are simultaneously nationalist but also very borderless, as European authorities have just discovered in the case of Turkey.