Foreign media – non-Dutch, that is – flock to the Netherlands to witness the upcoming Dutch elections. Geert Wilders’ freedom party is sinking in the polls as prime minister Mark Rutte’s liberal party and the progressive left under Jesse Klaver are climbing; will this populist tone set forth or will the Netherlands decide to take the more sensible route? Shortly before the spectacle will unfold on the 15th of March comes an unprecedented low in diplomatic relations with Turkey, promising an interesting home straight.
On the 16th of April, the Turkish will vote for constitutional reforms in a nation-wide referendum. This referendum, counting 18 constitutional reforms, states, besides a raise in the number of parliamentary seats, the introduction of an executive presidency. An executive presidency abolishes the office of prime minister and bridges the executive- and legislative branches of government. Effectively handing power to Erdogan, who, judging from his previous contempt for the judiciary and the press, will continue his pro-Russian, non-secular route of autocratic regime.
How we acted
The Turkish secretary of state, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, announced on March 3 that he planned to travel to Rotterdam in the Netherlands to campaign for a yes-vote in the upcoming Turkish referendum. There are roughly 400.000 Turkish Dutch in the Netherlands who are allowed to vote in the referendum, with a large majority living in Rotterdam. Only hours passed before the Dutch government said that the visit would be “undesirable” and “unwanted”, naming the already tense relations between the Turkish Dutch community and other parts of society. On the 11th of March, the day that Cavusoglu was supposed to campaign, his landing rights were evoked by the Dutch government, citing public security concerns. The plane then flew to Germany, where the Turkish family minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, decided to try a car. The cat-and-mouse game continued and upon arrival at the Turkish embassy, the family minister – an eerie ministry – was declared persona non grata and sent back to Germany. Erdogan responded by calling the Dutch “fascist” and “remnants of a Nazi past”, seemingly forgetting that Rotterdam was once bombed to the ground by the Nazi’s.
Protests sparked in both Rotterdam and Turkey. The skies colored by red Turkish flags. In Rotterdam, many Turkish Dutch set to the streets, one of them – famously, as it went viral on social media – asking “What is this? What is this?”. In Turkey, many set to the streets to protest against the now fascist and Nazi-reminiscent Netherlands, it was now the Netherlands’ turn to ask: “What is this? What is this?”.
How we should have acted
In the first place, the right to freedom of gathering and freedom of speech should have prevailed. By the standards of any decent liberal interpretation, one should be able to voice his opinion, even when the government strongly condemns it. Second, the government should have foreseen that blocking two Turkish ministers plays right into Erdogan’s wheelhouse. Every opposition is set aside with lumpen statements, claiming these countries are terrorists or Nazi’s, fueling nationalism and winning trust with the Turkish people. Erdogan knew very well that sending two diplomats to the Netherlands would be controversial and conflict provoking. A win for Erdogan.
In the Netherlands, the elections seem to be mostly about the trustworthiness of our current prime-minister Mark Rutte, the populist rhetoric and curious campaign-absence of demagogue Geert Wilders, the youth and progressiveness of Jesse Klaver and the comeback of centrist parties. Wilders, quite predictably, decided to protest against the Turkish minister and proposed tough measures. Rutte, who later said that he would have handled in the same way had this happened last year, acted firmly, claiming that the Netherlands wants to “de-escalate” but that escalation might be inevitable. Of course, one can wonder about the credibility of such statements. Rutte has portrayed himself as the one to stop Wilders, hoping for a bifurcation and, evidently, a third term. By taking a tough stand the prime minister takes the Wilders-esque route and wins votes as a trustworthy leader, forgetting that his move was both strategically questionable and against all moral values of his liberal party. After all, however, a win for Rutte.
Third, and I have not seen this aspect covered yet, one can wonder what this means for NATO-relations. By cooperating with the Turkish government in Syria, delivering oil and easing trade, the Russian government is creating a Turkish dependency on the Russians as well as pulling Turkey out of NATO. With NATO-relations already under pressure, a diplomatic conflict between two members is a welcome surprise to the Russians. Most European countries have now approved of Mark Rutte’s move, however, France – an important NATO-country – has handled Turkish campaigning as described above; by not doing anything. With the weakening of NATO-relations, however slightly, comes a win for Putin.