Erdogan and his spat with Europe

Megaphone diplomacy from both sides is likely to be aimed at their domestic audiences

A protester holds a placard with a picture of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Bas Czerwinski / EPA
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On April 16, the Turkish people will vote in a referendum that could transform the political system. The proposal is to amend the Turkish constitution to grant the presidency far-reaching executive powers, including the ability to set new term limits and issue decrees. The incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is counting on a “yes” vote to entrench his personal power.

In the Netherlands, meanwhile, voting takes place tomorrow after a bitter and divisive parliamentary election campaign in which mainstream politicians, led by the prime minister, Mark Rutte, have been consistently undermined by the unconcealed bigotry and Islamophobia of Geert Wilders, leader of the populist Party of Freedom. Despite his strong showing in the opinion polls, Mr Wilders has no chance of playing a part in the next government of the Netherlands, far less leading it, because no one will work with him. Nevertheless, his brand of far-right nationalism touches raw nerves in Europe, and has a corrosive effect on the political process. It is against this background of internal political jockeying in both countries that the current diplomatic spat between Turkey, the Netherlands, and Germany too, should be seen.

Although Turkish law explicitly prohibits campaigning outside the country, Mr Erdogan’s supporters, apparently not as confident of a referendum victory as they appear, have been aggressively targeting the votes of the millions of Turks in Europe. Authorities in Germany and the Netherlands banned mass public rallies in support of a Turkish referendum “yes” vote, and were duly accused by Mr Erdogan of Nazi and fascist behaviour.

Identifying enemies, from the Kurds in the south-east to Gulenists everywhere, has served Mr Erdogan’s political ends well in the past. He has every reason to suppose that, in complaining of perceived slights and insults to his legitimacy emanating from Turkey’s western neighbours, it will do so again. Equally, with a political vulture such as Mr Wilders making racist, spurious and nauseating claims about the “Islamisation” of Europe, the last thing the government of the Netherlands needs is to be seen at home as an electoral constituency of Turkey. While the diplomacy on both sides may be of the megaphone variety, there can be little doubt that the intended audience in both cases is entirely domestic. Voters might be well advised to ignore it.