Opinion

Why Turkey-Europe Spat Degenerated Into Nazi Epithets, Attack Dogs and Diplomatic Mayhem

What could have been a contained crisis spiraled out of control once it hit a perfect storm of election fever, with both sides competing on the basis of 'If they go low, we go lower.'

Despite the tensions that flared up between Turkey and Germany over the last few weeks, no one predicted that it would spiral so far out of control as to turn into a major crisis between the European Union and Turkey.

What started with a German local government decision to cancel a Turkish government minister’s speech accelerated into a wide European ban on Turkish government ministers holding political rallies (including the Netherlands, Austria, and Switzerland).

The crisis was frequently mentioned as a factor in this week’s Dutch general elections, with the suggestion that the incumbent – and victorious – Prime Minister Mark Rutte benefitted from his strong stance against Turkey’s government in an election where immigration and Islam were core issues.

So, how did we get here? The answer is an arrest of a Turkish-German journalist, Turkey’s upcoming referendum, and a surprise twist, which transformed the crisis into European-Turkish diplomatic disaster.

Originally, tensions flared up following the arrest in Turkey of Turkish-German journalist, Deniz Yucel on February 14, for supporting a terrorist organization and inciting the public to violence. Yucel, a correspondent of the German Die Welt newspaper, joins a long list of Turkish journalists, such as Ahmet Sik, being held on similar charges. The arrest of Yucel sent shock waves through Germany, with Merkel calling his arrest “bitter and disappointing.” It should be noted that Turkey was already upset with Germany for giving asylum to Can Dundar, the former editor of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, who fled Turkey last summer.

Turkish newspaper Gunes runs a photomontage of Chancellor Merkel as Hitler
Gunes newspaper

Despite the tense relations over Yucel’s arrest, Turkish government members were set on campaigning in Germany, since the electoral prize was too significant to relinquish. Almost half of the German citizens of Turkish origin, an estimated 1.4 million people, are eligible to vote in the upcoming April 16 referendum which aims to grant Turkey’s president Erdogan with extended presidential powers, giving legal legitimacy to the current de facto powers he already possesses under the State of Emergency. In fact, Europe’s Turkish diaspora could be crucial in pushing the “Yes” vote over the needed 50% threshold.  

However, with Turkey refusing to release Yucel, German politicians quickly became uneasy with Turkish government ministers campaigning on their territory. They also didn’t want to provide a stage for a members of a government with a growing list of human rights violations, which spiked following last summer’s attempted coup.

Tensions finally boiled over when a rally was cancelled on March 2, where none other than the Turkish justice minister Bekir Bozdag was due to speak. Once it was clear that they were going to block the rally, he returned to Turkey, cancelling a meeting with his German counterpart. Importantly, the decision to cancel Bozdag’s meeting was done on the local and not the national level, a point reiterated by Germany’s foreign ministry.

This was made clear by the fact that despite Bozdag’s ominous precedent, Turkey’s economy minister, Nihat Zeybekci, was able to speak in Germany and offered a reconciliatory message of friendship between the two countries.

A poster of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is seen outside of a framing shop in Istanbul, Turkey March 15, 2017.
Murad Sezer, Reuters

However, by then, it was already too late. Once Bozdag returned home, a chorus of voices, including Erdogan, hurled accusations and insults at Germany, insinuating that today’s Germany was no different than that of the Nazi period. In one of Turkey’s pro-government newspapers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was depicted as Hitler.

What could have still remained a contained crisis between Turkey and Germany spiraled out of control following the decision by the Netherlands to block Turkish politicians from holding referendum rallies on the grounds that it constituted unwanted interference in its own elections (which were held yesterday). Last Saturday, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, defying the wishes of the Dutch, vowed to arrive in Rotterdam to hold a rally; however, much to his dismay, he was stopped in his tracks, when the Dutch did not grant him permission to land his plane there.

Within hours, Turkey’s Minister of Women and Family affairs, Betul Sayan Kaya, in Germany at the time, outsmarted the Dutch by quickly making her way across the border. Her plan backfired and she was eventually expelled after a standoff between her and the Dutch police outside the Turkish Consulate in Rotterdam. To make matters worse, protesters supporting her were subject to excessive police violence; one protester was even attacked by a police dog, which was caught on tape, rightly outraging the Turkish public.

Dutch police with dogs attack Turkish protesters

Turkey has now banned the Dutch ambassador from returning to Ankara, suspended official meetings, and has threatened to bring the Netherlands to the European Human Rights Court, among other measures. Furthermore, a smear campaign is fully underway, with Erdogan not sparing the Dutch his Nazi epithets, calling them “Nazi remnants,” in addition to other insults hurled at them.

What is clear however from the results of yesterday’s elections is that Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s firm standing firm against Turkish demands might have led to his retaining a comfortable majority against the far-right anti-Muslim candidate Geert Wilders, who had been stoking the fire between the two countries in order to gain votes.

Nevertheless, in its fervor to block Turkish ministers from speaking, the Netherlands (and other European states) has only strengthened Erdogan and his party’s chances at winning the referendum. The crisis has set off a massive wave of nationalism in Turkey, providing Erdogan with opportunity to frame himself as defender of the country’s honor; many Turkish citizens rightly see this as an attack on Turkey and not just the AKP.     

Turkey, however, has little to gain from the tactics it has adopted, and very well could be the real loser in this row. The referendum is still over a month away, but the velocity reached by Erdogan even now is unsustainable without causing irreversible damage to Turkey-Europe relations. True, the AKP might have help whipped up enough votes in their favor in the referendum, but its actions increasingly isolate Turkey; for its diplomats, this is clearly a complete fiasco. Further, with Turkey suffering an economic slowdown, this too cannot bode well, and dampens any hopes that European tourists will start to return.

Both sides, Europe and Turkey, must take two steps back. The game of “if they go low, we go lower,” runs the risk of permanently damaging relations. Even if on the surface it seems that Turkey has more to lose than Europe, in the current state of global uncertainty, it would be wise if both sides realize that there are no winners in this game of tit-for-tat.

Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has lived in Turkey and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @IstanbulTelaviv.