Turkey vs. the Netherlands: Why are they fighting?

How did a relationship known for tulips and trade end up in tatters so quickly? Nil Köksal explains what it's all about.

Turkey demanding apology after Netherlands bars ministers from holding rallies

Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, Turkey's Minister of Family Affairs, was physically barred from entering the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam on Saturday, and is at the centre of a major diplomatic dispute between Turkey and the Netherlands. (Associated Press)

Turkey versus the Netherlands is a grudge match no one saw coming.

The Turkish government is lobbing accusations of fascism and threatening to take the Dutch to the European Court of Human Rights after Turkish ministers were told this weekend that they couldn't hold a rally for expats on Dutch soil.

The Dutch government said it refused to be bullied by Turkey, but responded with more than words. Riot police, dogs and water cannons confronted protesters this weekend, taking tensions to an even higher level.

How did we get here?

Dutch citizens of Turkish descent are at the centre of the crisis.

In April, they're eligible to vote in a referendum in Turkey that will decide whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be able to change his country's constitution and become its sole leader.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is holding a referendum on April 16 that he hopes will enable him to expand his presidential powers. (Yasin Bulbul/Presidential Press Service/Associated Press)

Erdogan's ministers have been planning rallies all over Europe to court the expat vote, which accounts for nearly three million people.

Dutch authorities said they were concerned about safety at the events. Last week, the German government told Turkish ministers to stay away from similar gatherings in Germany, but eventually softened its position.

Some of the rallies in the Netherlands were planned for this weekend, just days before a much-anticipated national election there, where the far-right movement is gaining steam. Dutch voters will be casting ballots on Wednesday.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the Turkish ministers could not come to campaign in his country. Turkey's foreign minister doubled down, essentially daring the Dutch government to stop him.

And so the Dutch did. On Saturday, they pulled the landing permission for the foreign minister's flight. They also physically blocked Turkish family minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, who drove into the Netherlands, from going to the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam and sent her back to Turkey.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Turkish ministers could not come to campaign in his country. Turkey's foreign minister essentially dared the Dutch government to stop him - and it did. (Valerie Kuypers/AFP/Getty)

That's when the protests began and the police cracked down.

Erdogan said the response proves "Nazism is alive in the West" and that the Netherlands would "pay the price" for harming relations between the two countries.

What else is at play here?

Both sides have a lot to gain and lose in this dispute.

Conflict with the West could help Erdogan's campaign to expand his presidential powers. Turkey is a Muslim country and if Turks at home and abroad feel ostracized and mistreated, they have more reason to vote yes in a referendum for a leader who says he's looking out for their best interests.

That said, Turkey's own election law forbids campaigning abroad. As well, many in the West find Erdogan's accusations of fascism ironic in light of Turkey's recent reputation for jailing journalists and firing academics.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Turkish columnist Asli Aydintasbas asks Europe, "How about pushing for a return to democracy in Turkey instead of erecting barriers to keep all Turks out?"

"Europeans have, until recently, been quiet about the rise of illiberalism and ethno-nationalism in Turkey in exchange for Erdogan stemming the refugee flow into Europe — and now Europeans are stuck with a neighbour they despise."

Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders has been outspoken about his belief that Muslims pose a threat to Dutch culture.

Meanwhile, the rise of Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders has pushed the current prime minister, Mark Rutte, into a corner. Wilders is proof of the extent to which Islamophobia has taken hold in the Netherlands and across Europe. He has campaigned, among other things, on a promise of banning Muslims from the Netherlands, and is doing well in the polls.

Wilders is using the crisis to fuel his message, dropping venom on social media recently, essentially telling the nearly 400,000 people of Turkish descent in the Netherlands to go back to Turkey.

What next?

Don't expect the crisis to die down in the next few days — particularly in Turkey. Any conflict with the West is powerful fuel for Erdogan's campaign, just as anti-immigrant sentiment is for populist politicians in Europe.

But there is a lot on the line. Not only for Turks who call the Netherlands home, but for Turkey's economy.

Dutch foreign investment in Turkey is higher than any other country — about $20 billion US from 2005 to 2015, according to Turkey's economy ministry. Beyond the 400 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries, there are also billions of dollars in imports and exports at stake. In 2016, trade between the two countries totalled $6.6 billion.

European leaders have been doing a delicate dance with Erdogan's government because Turkey agreed to keep roughly three million refugees, the majority from the Syrian conflict. Turkey says it is still waiting for the EU to fulfil its promise of billions of dollars in financial support.

The rhetoric may cool down after the April 16 referendum.

But right now, the crisis is still very hot. Turkey is pushing for an apology, calling the Dutch actions a violation of diplomatic conventions, and is threatening sanctions.

About the Author

Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She recently returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey.