(CNSNews.com) – In one of the worst diplomatic rows between NATO allies in decades, Turkey’s Islamist president has compared the Dutch government to Nazis after it prevented two Turkish ministers from addressing rallies in the Netherlands in support of the Turkish leader’s attempts to significantly expand his powers.
“Nazism is alive in the West,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told supporters in Istanbul on Sunday.
Ahead of a referendum next month on changes to the constitution, Erdogan has been eager to promote the “yes” vote among large Turkish expatriate communities, especially in Germany and the Netherlands.
But the European governments are reluctant to allow the potentially volatile rallies to take place.
Matters came to a head when Dutch authorities on Saturday refused permission for one minister to land his plane to address a rally, and then blocked a second minister who had entered by road, declaring her “persona non-grata” and escorting her back to the German border.
The order refusing Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu permission to land, and the decision to prevent Family Affairs Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya from addressing a “yes” rally in Rotterdam and to remove her from the country, were both taken on “public order” grounds.
Kaya had been advised beforehand not to visit, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called Turkey’s decisions to send her anyway “extraordinary.”
Erdogan in response described the Dutch government as “fascists” and “remnants of Nazism.”
Ankara demanded a written apology, and said the Dutch ambassador – who happened to be out of the country – would not be allowed to return.
There is much at stake for the outspoken president: If he wins the referendum, Erdogan will be able to remain in power until 2029 – but in a powerful new executive president role rather than the current supposedly customary one. (That would effectively extend Erdogan’s tenure to 26 years: He was prime minister from 2003-mid-2014, and has been president since then.)
Turkey’s official opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) – which is leading the “no” campaign ahead of the closely-fought April 16 referendum – criticized the Dutch actions, possibly concerned that sympathy among Turks would boost the “yes” camp.
The Hurriyet daily quoted CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu as saying the issue “has nothing to do with the referendum and ‘yes’ or ‘no’ votes. This is a national issue. It is every political party’s duty, regardless if you are rightist or leftist, to defend Turkey’s rights.”
Earlier, some German local authorities canceled events that were to have been addressed by Erdogan surrogates in that country.
That also brought charges of Nazi-like behavior, prompting Chancellor Angela Merkel to accuse Turkey of trivializing the victims of the Nazis.
After German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel met with Cavusoglu last Wednesday – a day after the Turkish minister had been permitted to address a referendum campaign rally in Hamburg – Gabriel said comments comparing modern-day Germany with its “National Socialist past” would not be tolerated.
Adding to tensions, a Turkish-German journalist with the newspaper Die Welt remains under arrest in Turkey, where he has been accused of spreading “terrorist propaganda.”
Some three million ethnic Turks live in Germany, about half of whom are eligible to vote in the Turkey referendum. Another half a million live in the Netherlands.
Erdogan on Sunday called on international organizations to impose sanctions on the Netherlands on its treatment of the Turkish ministers, and criticized the European Union in particular for not condemning the Netherlands.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim also looked to the E.U., declaring, “Our so-called European friends who talk about democracy, freedom of speech and human rights have fallen short.”
Far from siding with Turkey in the spat, other E.U. countries may be considering similar measures in response to what many view as Erdogan’s dangerous power grab.
Denmark’s prime minister on Sunday said he has asked Yildirim to postpone a visit that had been scheduled for March 20. Around 30,000 ethnic Turks live in Denmark.
“Such a visit could not take place in light of the current attacks by Turkey against the Netherlands,” Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said in a statement that also expressed concern about democratic principles being “under great pressure” in Turkey.
By contrast, French authorities did allow Cavusoglu to address a long-planned event Sunday in the north-eastern town of Metz, although a leading candidate in the French presidential campaign, independent Emmanuel Macron, issued a statement slamming Turkey for “unacceptable comments” and calling for a “united response” from the E.U.
Turkey has long been in talks to join the E.U., but faces strong resistance both because of the repressive policies of its Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, but also due to demographic/religious concerns.
Turkey is constitutionally a secular state, but its 80 million people are 99 percent Muslim. For some Europeans, the prospect of their traditionally Christian continent having its Muslim population jump from around 19 million today to around 100 million is a troubling one.
The dispute poses a dilemma for the E.U. – and Merkel in particular – given the acknowledged success thus far of an E.U.-Turkish agreement designed to prevent an influx of refugees and migrants from mostly Middle Eastern countries, via Turkey, into the 26-member union.
After Germany took in around 890,000 migrants in 2015, Merkel played a key role in brokering the agreement with Turkey. It, along with other factors such as the closure of borders by Austria and some Balkan countries, saw a dramatic drop in the numbers arriving in Europe.
Merkel faces a tough re-election campaign this year, and her “open door” refugee policy has been seen to boost the fortunes of the anti-immigration Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party.
The Turkey-Netherlands row cannot be divorced either from politics in the Netherlands, where Rutte’s party is running just a couple of points ahead of the party led by anti-Islamist, anti-immigrant politician Geert Wilders, two days before a general election.