- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet., Ruby MellenRuby Mellen is a fellow at Foreign Policy with a background in TV, print, and digital journalism. Before coming to FP, she covered the 2016 election as a news associate at CNN in Washington, D.C., working on State of the Union with Jake Tapper. Prior to that, she was a politics fellow at the Huffington Post. She was born in New York and is a dual citizen of Belgium and the United States.
Turkey developed a nasty habit of comparing European leaders to Nazis in recent weeks amid spats with Germany and the Netherlands. On the surface, it looks like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone off the deep end, alienating his country from a powerful bloc of allies in the EU. But experts and former officials say it’s a calculated political move — and Europeans are playing right into his hands.
The latest row took place over the weekend, when the Netherlands blocked Turkish officials from holding campaign events on its soil. Erdogan called the Dutch authorities “Nazi remnants” for keeping his officials from campaigning to expatriates to vote in favor of a referendum to reform the country’s political system. Last week, he accused Germany of “fascist antics” for blocking events there. Sunday he doubled down on this rhetoric at a campaign rally, saying “I have said that I had thought Nazism was over, but that I was wrong. Nazism is alive in the West.”
The referendum would dismantle Turkey’s parliamentary system and replace it with a system that expands Erdogan’s executive power. Critics say it’s nothing more than a power grab for Erdogan — and it would be a death blow to democracy in Turkey.
“It’s more important than any election we have ever had,” Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, the Ankara office director for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Foreign Policy.
The stakes are high — the expat vote may be Erdogan’s ticket to victory but European governments aren’t exactly thrilled with his campaigning for authoritarianism in their backyard.
If Erdogan’s antics are isolating him abroad, they’re shoring up his support at home. He’s a savvy political operator; the more European governments, including the Dutch, Austrian, Swiss, and German, block Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) from campaigning, the more support they get.
It’s also taking the wind out of the sails of the opposition, said Simon Waldman, a Turkey expert and research fellow at King’s College London. “It’s difficult to criticize a leader when he wraps himself in the flag,” he said. Even the opposition, lobbying against the referendum measures, has denounced the Netherlands for blocking the government’s campaign events.
The AKP needs conflict to thrive, said Ünlühisarcıklı. “[They] found the enemy that they could not find in Turkey in the Dutch government,” he said.
But picking a fight with Europe, popular as it may be at home, will only widen the serious rift between the EU and Turkey, a country that once came close to joining its ranks.
“Turkish leaders underestimate the extent to which inflammatory over-the-top rhetoric curdles their personal relationships with their friends,” Ross Wilson, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, told FP. “It’s very damaging for both sides.”
The spat casts a shadow over the Netherlands’ own elections on Wednesday. The Dutch government is trying to hold off challenges from the eurosceptic, far-right Party for Freedom. Meanwhile, a conflict with a Muslim-majority country is only serving to normalize Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders’ anti-immigrant, anti-Islam rhetoric.
“The Netherlands can see that these people are Turks, not Dutch,” tweeted Wilders in response to displays of Turkish support in Rotterdam. “They have Dutch passports, but they don’t belong here.”
It also gave rise to some odd and hamfisted protests. A group of Erdogan supporters tried to burn the Dutch flag, but accidentally burned a French flag instead. (They’re both tricolor, just slightly different colors.) Other protesters in northwest Turkey stabbed and squeezed oranges to showcase their anger at the Dutch (the color orange is synonymous with the Dutch royal family and the national soccer team). Flyers were passed around at the fruit-themed protests reading “Fascist Holland” and “Stay There, Orange.”
Photo credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images