TURKEY’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seems able to spot Nazis where no one else can. On March 11th Mr Erdogan called the Netherlands “Nazi remnants and fascists”, after Dutch authorities prevented his ministers from entering the country to campaign among Dutch-Turkish dual nationals for a “yes” vote in Turkey’s upcoming constitutional referendum. Days earlier, he claimed to have uncovered “Nazi practices” in Germany after authorities there cancelled similar events featuring Turkish officials.
Having declared the Dutch ambassador persona non grata and closed Turkish airspace to diplomatic flights from the Netherlands, Mr Erdogan may soon have to widen his struggle against fascism. Belgium, Austria, and Denmark have all made clear they would not welcome election rallies by Turkish ministers. On March 14th he invented a breathtakingly false claim that the Dutch were responsible for the massacre of over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995. (In fact Serbian militia carried out the massacres; Dutch peacekeepers were overrun, and failed to stop them.)
To European ears, this all sounds like a horrible joke. Mr Erdogan’s government is in no position to lecture anyone on democracy or human rights. Some 40,000 people in Turkey, including judges, prosecutors, Kurdish politicians and over 100 journalists, have been jailed since a failed coup attempt last July, many of them on flimsy evidence. A recent UN report accused Turkish security forces of torture, extrajudicial killings and disproportionate use of force during an offensive against separatist militants in the country’s Kurdish south-east. Another report, by the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the Council of Europe, concluded that the new constitution that Mr Erdogan is pushing for is a manual for autocracy. Turkish officials routinely compare critics of the new charter to terrorists. Though protests are no longer brutally put down, that is because government opponents are now too scared to protest.
To the Turks, however, the scenes from the Netherlands over the weekend were deeply offensive. After the Dutch denied landing rights to a plane carrying Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, another minister, Fatma Kaya, who had reached the country by car, attempted to enter the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam. She was turned back by police and forcibly escorted to the border with Germany. A crowd of protesters waving Turkish flags was dispersed with police dogs, batons and water cannons. A leading Dutch newspaper ran an image of a bloodied Turkish protester attacked by one of the dogs, accompanied by the words, “We are the boss here”.
There are indications that Mr Erdogan deliberately triggered the crisis. Dutch authorities had asked the Turkish side not to organise any large rallies ahead of Dutch elections on March 15th, in which an anti-Muslim populist party is expected to make a strong showing. Only a week before the dust-up, Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, suggested that his officials would comply with those wishes. Mr Cavusoglu insisted on heading to Rotterdam nonetheless, even when the Dutch made it clear they would not allow him to land. When he was turned back, his consul in Rotterdam called on local Turks to march on the consulate to greet Ms Kaya. (The local mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, said the consul had assured him Ms Kaya would not be coming.) Amid the uproar, few people cared to point out that campaigning abroad is illegal under Turkey’s own laws.
In Turkey, the crisis has been grist for Mr Erdogan’s mill. The main secular opposition has fallen in behind the government, urging that ties with the Netherlands be suspended. Nationalists have called for sit-ins at Dutch airports. Newspapers across Turkey, including the few still critical of the government, are bubbling with outrage. A lawmaker from the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party recently opined that Germany and the Netherlands had boosted support for Mr Erdogan’s constitution by about two percentage points. “Perhaps we should thank them a little,” he said.
Most European governments have cited security concerns as a reason for cancelling pro-Erdogan rallies. Turkish officials think this is baloney. “The way we understand this is that they choose to take sides in the referendum,” Mr Yildirim recently told a small group of journalists. “The way we interpret this is that they are disturbed by a ‘yes’.”
In fact, although European governments may disapprove of the new constitution, they are under no illusion that they can influence Turks’ votes. But they are exasperated by Mr Erdogan’s antics abroad. Europeans find it hard to stomach a Turkish government that suppresses opponents at home but nonetheless expects to campaign freely in Germany and the Netherlands, says Marc Pierini, a former European Union ambassador to Turkey. Mr Erdogan’s attempts to extract concessions from Europe by threatening to flood it with refugees have fuelled indignation. After his Nazi comments, says Mr Pierini, “it’s hard to conceive that the European Council will invite Erdogan to sit at the table, even with a long fork.”
Recent opinion polls suggest that support for Mr Erdogan’s constitution, which awaits a popular vote on April 16th, continues to hover a bit under 50%. His decision to pick a fight with his country’s biggest investor, the Netherlands, and its biggest trade partner, Germany, shows “just how desperate” he is to court the nationalist vote, says a senior Western diplomat. “The result”, following the row with the Dutch, “is a win-win situation for the crazies on both sides.”