How far will Erdoğan go in fanning Turkey's diplomatic crisis with Europe?

Turkey's President Erdoğan lashed out at the Dutch for blocking rallies aimed at garnering support from Turkish voters abroad ahead of an April referendum on his presidential powers. While that plays well at home, he may not want to push too hard, given close economic ties and shared interests.

Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presid­ential Press Service/Pool/AP
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses to health sector workers at his palace in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday. Erdoğan has called Germany and the Netherlands 'bandit states' that are harming the European Union amid Turkey's growing tensions with the two countries over Turkish ministers' plans to hold campaign meetings there.

Diplomatic crisis has often helped boost Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's popularity. And he appears to be hoping that the latest standoff with Europe, particularly the Dutch, will resonate as well with his domestic audience.

Prickly Turkey-Europe relations nose-dived over the weekend, as the Netherlands prevented Turkish ministers from addressing election rallies, and Mr. Erdoğan called the Dutch “Nazi fascists” who would “pay the price.” He continued the rhetoric on Tuesday, blaming the Dutch for not stopping the Srebrenica massacre by Bosnian Serbs in 1995.

The crisis, on its face, should bolster Erdoğan. Politically, it makes him appear tough in the face of European intransigence and anti-Turkish sentiment. And it also could help eke out a victory in a closely fought referendum to fulfill his long-held personal dream to create an unassailable executive presidency in Turkey.

But it is not yet clear how far the clash will go because of Turkey’s close economic ties to Europe, its status as a NATO ally, and a host of shared interests from migration policies to the fight against the so-called Islamic State.

Dubbed the "Tulip Crisis" – both nations share an affection for tulips, and the flower the Netherlands is now famous for first came from present-day Turkey in the 16th century – Turkey has imposed modest diplomatic sanctions on the Dutch, but no economic ones that could jeopardize its biggest single source of foreign investment.

“For sure, the Turkish government is trying to use this crisis as a tool in the referendum process,” says Behlül Özkan, an associate professor of international relations at Marmara University in Istanbul.

“It’s a very easy tactic. Our national pride is attacked by Europe, this is the argument, and non-AKP voters will stand united,” says Mr. Özkan. “This tactic played well in the past, toward Israel and Russia. However, in this case I have doubts if it will work as planned … because Turkish society has an interesting relationship with Europe.”

Halting the rallies

The diplomatic crisis – in which Germany, Austria, and Denmark too have moved to cancel Turkish rallies on their soil – comes at a pivotal moment for the Turkish government at home and abroad.

Turkey votes on April 16 to expand Erdoğan’s presidential powers, and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) wants to galvanize support among the 3 million Turks living in Europe to ensure a “yes” result. Polls currently show an even split between those for and against Erdoğan's proposal.

Erdoğan has tried to solidify his support among foreign-based Turks by sending government officials to attend rallies around Europe. As some countries have balked at the prospect, the Dutch in particular cited security concerns on the eve of their own general election on March 15, in which the anti-Muslim, far-right politician Geert Wilders is likely to improve his standing.

Dutch authorities asked Turkey to delay the rallies, but Turkey insisted they take place now. The Dutch, in turn, revoked landing rights for the plane of the Turkish foreign minister, and then escorted back to Germany the Turkish family minister who attempted to reach Rotterdam by car. Dutch riot police used water cannon and dogs to disperse Turkish protesters over the weekend, creating images of clashes that have fed Turkey's nationalist media. Turkey lodged several official complaints with Dutch diplomats, while Erdoğan accused the Netherlands of being a "banana republic" and a home of "Nazism."

But despite the accusations, Turkey has aspired to European Union membership for decades. That ambition has foundered over questions raised by some European leaders in the past about a Muslim nation joining the club – doubts compounded by Turkey’s backsliding on a host of democratic norms and Erdoğan’s authoritarian tactics.

Also rankling Turkey is what it sees as unfulfilled EU promises regarding visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, as part of a deal in which Turkey virtually stopped an exodus of migrants into Europe via Turkey from Syria and elsewhere in early 2016. Turkey now says the migrant deal might be reconsidered.

Last week Germany, too, prevented Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu from addressing a public rally. When he was allowed to speak on Sunday at a rally in Metz, France, the minister labeled the Netherlands the "capital of fascism."

"The current antagonism has perhaps given a momentum to the AKP campaign, which has lacked the desired excitement so far," wrote Murat Yetkin, a columnist for the neutral Hürriyet Daily News. The strategy, he added, "has come at the dear cost of a further hit" to Turkey's reputation.

Yet Turkish officials cast the dispute as part of a broader, long-term narrative of rising Turkish power. Some European countries support a “no” vote in the referendum and are “gripped in racism that manifests itself as xenophobia and Islamophobia” toward Turks, asserted İlnur Çevik, an Erdoğan adviser, in an editorial in the pro-government Daily Sabah.

A coalition led by Germany is “extremely unhappy with Turkey becoming a rising star under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and have tried everything to stall it,” wrote Mr. Çevik.

The limits of patriotism

In the past decade, Erdoğan has turned to bombast in such diplomatic spats. In 2010, Israeli commandos stormed the Mavi Mara, a Turkish ship that sought to break the siege on Gaza and deliver humanitarian aid, killing nine activists including a dual US-Turkish citizen. Overnight, decades of close Turkey-Israel ties dried up, and the number of Israeli tourists – which peaked at 560,000 in 2008, before the 2008-09 Gaza war – shriveled further to a fraction of that. Erdoğan in 2012 said Turkey did "not need" Israeli tourists, and Israel's peak 3 percent slice of Turkish tourism fell to 0.05 percent.

Likewise, Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian jet fighter that strayed into Turkish airspace from Syria for a few seconds in November 2015 prompted a fierce reaction from Moscow – and a fierce counter-reaction from Ankara. While Turkish politicians at first reveled in the action, Russia struck back with sanctions on produce and banned Russian tour group travel – a key source of income for Turkey’s cash-strapped Mediterranean resorts.

In both cases, the cost to Turkey was hardest on the tourism industry, and they have since been smoothed over by an Israeli apology to Erdoğan, and an Erdoğan apology to Russia. But contrary to the earlier crises, Turkey’s ties with Europe are more enmeshed, and stretch far beyond tourism.

The Netherlands is one of Turkey’s biggest trading partners in Europe, with trade tripling in the past decade to $6.6 billion per year, according to Reuters, buoyed by $22 billion in direct investment in Turkey from 2002 to 2015 – which accounts for 16 percent of the total share. Some 900,000 Dutch tourists visited last year, down from 1.2 million the year before.

Those figures matter to Turkey, where the economy today is shrinking, the victim of a string of 30 high profile attacks by IS and Kurdish militants last year, some 2.7 million Syrian refugees inside Turkey, and a falling Turkish lira. Overall direct investment plunged 54 percent in the first half of 2016, compared with the same period the year before.

Such statistics may explain why, despite the heated anti-Dutch rhetoric, the AKP has so far not imposed economic sanctions. That inconsistency was underscored by the main opposition leader, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, who said Dutch action "hurts our pride," yet the AKP was "just talk."

"If you are to do something, do it," said the leader of the People Republican Party (CHP). The AKP "said they would respond with strong countermeasures. How? They say 'wait until April 16.' Why?.... This nation is fed up with talk."

In power for 15 years, Erdoğan and his AKP have long prided themselves on business acumen and big building projects, as a means to win at the polls. As economic indicators worsen, though, Turkey so far is choosing financial ties over nationalist retaliation.
“Almost half of Turkish exports are to Europe; Turkey’s trade with Europe is very high,” says Özkan.

“Even AKP supporters are aware that Turkey’s relations with Europe can’t be changed dramatically in the near future,” he says. “People realize the Turkish economy has a big problem, and crisis with Europe would not solve that problem, but make it worse.”

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