It’s complicated

Turkey and the EU nations can’t afford to wait till the referendum to de-escalate tensions

Updated - November 29, 2021 01:31 pm IST

Published - March 16, 2017 12:02 am IST

Until Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan started a high-voltage campaign for next month’s referendum on constitutional reforms that give him more powers, relations between Ankara and the European Union were relatively stable, though not without glitches. Trouble started when Mr. Erdogan’s allies drew up plans to organise campaign rallies in European cities to mobilise support among the tens of thousands of Turks living in Europe who are eligible to vote in the April 16 referendum. Several European countries, including Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, and some German towns, banned such rallies, raising security concerns as well as fear of domestic political repercussions. Mr. Erdogan, however, turned this into a Turkey versus West spat. When German towns blocked the rallies, Mr. Erdogan accused the country of “Nazi practices”. When the Netherlands refused landing rights to a plane carrying Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who was on his way to address a referendum rally, Mr. Erdogan called the country “fascist” and “a Nazi remnant”. Ties between the Netherlands and Turkey deteriorated rapidly thereafter, with Ankara effectively removing the Dutch ambassador. The Turkish government has also hinted that it would scrap an agreement reached with Europe last year to curb the passage of migrants through Turkey in return for financial help from the EU.

The referendum is crucial for Mr. Erdogan’s ambitious plans to overhaul Turkey’s political system. If he gets the reforms approved by a majority of voters, Turkey would move towards a presidential system. He would then handpick his own cabinet and his Justice and Development Party’s MPs and gain at least two five-year terms uncontested. It is therefore unsurprising that Mr. Erdogan is turning the diplomatic crisis into a political battle to appeal to nationalist sections of the electorate. But the crisis could have undesirable outcomes. European leaders fear that Mr. Erdogan’s outreach could help the anti-Muslim far-right parties in the continent. In the Netherlands, which went to the polls on Wednesday, the far-right candidate, Geert Wilders, has already questioned the “loyalty” of Dutch Muslims of Turkish origin and called for a tough response to Ankara. Mr. Erdogan might win short-term political dividends from this ongoing spat, but in the longer run he is endangering both Turkey’s ties with Europe and the prospects of the hundreds of thousands of Turks living in the continent. European countries could also have avoided extreme reactions, such as refusing to give landing rights to a plane carrying Turkey’s Foreign Minister. Such escalation is politically unwise, given the context in which Mr. Erdogan is running his campaign. Instead, the Netherlands and other countries could have opted for direct engagement with Ankara to avoid a showdown. After all, Turkey and Europe need each other. The EU is Turkey’s largest trading partner. And Turkey is a NATO member. Both sides will be tested on whether they can turn the focus to more positive aspects of this complicated relationship.

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