Turkish-Dutch row takes over election campaign
By Peter Teffer
The issue of foreign affairs has become the main theme of the Dutch electoral campaign this weekend, as the Netherlands experienced its worst diplomatic crisis with a Nato ally in recent history.
One of the contenders to become Dutch prime minister on behalf of the usually pro-EU European People's Party called for the EU to abolish a 54-year-old association agreement with Turkey, in response to a diplomatic row with Turkish ministers.
Representatives of Turkey's government wanted to campaign on Saturday in the Dutch city of Rotterdam for a Yes vote in Turkey's upcoming April referendum, which would see further powers granted to president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish officials have tried to campaign in several EU states in the past week, but the Dutch context is different, due to its incoming general elections on Wednesday (15 March). Dutch centre-right Liberal prime minister Mark Rutte has portrayed the elections as a choice between him and far-right anti-Islam and anti-EU politician Geert Wilders.
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced last week that he would campaign for a Yes vote in Rotterdam on Saturday, despite explicit requests from the Dutch government not to do so.
Dutch officials were afraid the rally would cause public unrest among roughly 400,000 Turkish-Dutch citizens in the country. Over half of them have the right to vote in the Turkish referendum.
Cavusoglu had called on them to participate in great numbers whilst at a public rally.
According to the Dutch government, when talks with Cavusoglu were still ongoing, Turkey issued a public threat.
Dutch foreign minister Bert Koenders told Dutch political talk-show Buitenhof on Sunday that he learned via CNN of president Erdogan's threat to pose sanctions on the Netherlands if Cavusoglu wasn't allowed to speak.
That was the final straw, Koenders said.
“I will not be blackmailed,” he noted.
The Dutch government withdrew the landing rights for Cavusoglu.
Following this, Turkish family affairs minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya decided to enter the Netherlands by car via Germany, which Koenders called “sneaky”.
Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb said the Turkish consulate had “deceived” him, by not mentioning that an event would be happening that evening, calling on Turkish-Dutch citizens to protest.
A standoff followed on Saturday night between Kaya's convoy and the Rotterdam police, while Turkish-Dutch protesters had gathered near the Turkish consulate.
It ended when the Dutch government escorted Kaya out of the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, Turkish president Erdogan talked of the Netherlands in a speech noting “Nazi remnants” and “fascists”, diplomatically unheard of comments towards a country that suffered five years of Nazi occupation and lost almost 200,000 citizens in the Second World War.
However, Erdogan has said he wanted the Netherlands to apologise, something that Koenders and Rutte both said is not going to happen.
Koenders noted that he would like it if Turkey apologised for its Nazi comments, but that he did not expect it.
Overnight, he had been in touch with EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, who also spoke to Cavosoglu that night, a spokeswoman for Mogherini told EUobserver. However, Mogherini has not made a public statement yet.
The Netherlands did receive support from Denmark over the weekend, when Danish prime minister postponed a meeting with his Turkish counterpart because of the “rhetorical attacks” on the Netherlands.
Erdogan for his part continued to insult the Netherlands, calling it a “banana republic”, and saying the Dutch would “pay the price” for its actions.
EPP candidate: end EU-Turkey agreement
The diplomatic spat is likely to dominate the remaining days of the election campaign.
On Sunday, centre-right leader of the Christian-Democrats, the Dutch member of the European People's Party (EPP), took aim at prime minister Rutte's handling of the crisis.
Sybrand van Haersma Buma said the affair showed integration of Turkish-Dutch into Dutch society has “failed”.
He said he wanted to scrap an EU-Turkey association agreement signed in 1963, because its effect was that Turkish-Dutch did not need to take the citizenship test required of other immigrants.
Buma earlier called for the Netherlands not to ratify an association agreement with Ukraine.
Wilders vs Rutte
Meanwhile, far right MP Geert Wilders has claimed victory in the affair, saying it was because of him that Rutte decided to revoke the landing rights for Turkey's foreign minister.
The Turkish government has taken the same narrative, with Cavusoglu saying the Netherlands “has become a slave of the racist party of Wilders”.
Rutte said the Dutch elections had nothing to do with how the government acted. Nevertheless, both Wilders and Rutte will hope to profit from the affair, no matter what they say.
On Monday evening (13 March), the two will have a showdown in one of the very few television debates in which Wilders will participate.
One other party that may profit is the party Denk, which seems to mainly attract voters with a migration background.
Denk was founded by two Turkish-Dutch MPs who left the centre-left Labour party in 2014.
Critics say the party is sectarian, but its leader Tunavun Kuzu recently told EUobserver that his party “gives a voice” to people who are currently not being heard.
“We are the effect of polarisation, not the cause,” said Kuzu.
However, on Monday, the Council of Moroccan Mosques in the Netherlands was quoted in the media saying Denk has an “aggressive style of campaigning”. It said Denk is putting pressure on mosque councils to tell their constituencies to vote Denk.
Also on Monday, deputy prime minister Lodewijk Asscher, of the centre-left Labour party, has invited Turkish organisations to talk with him to help “calm things down”.
If anything, the diplomatic row has reminded the Netherlands that it is not an island. The campaign, which focused almost exclusively on domestic affairs until now, will take a more global view.
Polls will probably not fully reflect the effect of the Dutch-Turkish diplomatic crisis on time, bringing an extra level of suspense to Wednesday's already close elections.