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Turkey-EU ties held hostage to domestic politics

It was a tough weekend for Turkey and the EU. Tensions between them escalated after Dutch authorities barred a Turkish minister, who wanted to meet with Turks living in the Netherlands, from entering the Turkish Consulate in Rotterdam on Saturday.

She was not only barred from entering her country’s diplomatic mission, which is legally Turkish territory, but her bodyguards were detained and she was forced to leave the country for Germany. Rhetoric from both sides heated up further after scenes of Dutch security officials staging a brutal use of force, with dogs and water cannon, against Turkish demonstrators.

This all happened in a country where The Hague serves as the capital of human rights and justice. It happened in the heart of Europe, the so-called cradle of democracy, liberty and equality. It was one NATO member against another. The way the Dutch government handled the crisis was disgraceful, and far removed from diplomatic customs.

In reciprocation, Turkey halted all high-level political discussions with the Netherlands, told the Dutch ambassador not to return for some time, demanded an official apology, and summoned the Dutch charge d’affaires to the Turkish Foreign Ministry for the third time since March 11.

Earlier that day, Dutch authorities canceled the flight permit of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who wanted to meet Turks in the Netherlands to promote the “yes” vote in next month’s referendum on shifting Turkey’s parliamentary system to a presidential one.

Prior to that, Cavusoglu was barred from making a public speech in Germany. Another EU country, Denmark, joined the diplomatic meltdown by postponing a meeting between Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and his Danish counterpart Lars Lokke Rasmussen. Sweden and Austria followed suit. One by one, EU heavyweights canceled Turkish rallies. The latest Dutch move was the final straw, with Turkey-EU tensions reaching a dangerous peak.

In the past couple of years Turkey-EU relations have soured, particularly due to EU reluctance over visa liberalization for Turkish citizens, Turkish accession to the union, migration, the Syrian refugee crisis and the Kurdish issue.

While European countries routinely air grievances over Turkey’s moving away from the EU and neglect of human rights, Turkish leaders complain of European hypocrisy, its meddling in Turkish affairs, and its turning a blind eye to the activities of Kurdish separatists.

Turkey’s relations with the Netherlands, and with European countries in general, should not be held hostage to domestic politics. European diplomacy, which praises itself as the cradle of democratic values and civilization, should not fall apart.

Sinem Cengiz

The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is on the terrorist list of European countries, but its members are free to parade in these countries’ streets, make propaganda, recruit militants, and threaten and harass Turks.

The Turkish-Dutch standoff should end via diplomatic means before it reaches a point of no return between Turkey and Europe. Turkish-Dutch ties date back to 1612, and the latest development is a breaking point in those 406-year-old relations. There are approximately 400,000 people of Turkish origin living in the Netherlands, and their votes are of great importance for Ankara ahead of the April 16 referendum.

What happened on Saturday is related to Dutch as well as Turkish politics, with the Netherlands undertaking parliamentary elections on March 15 that will seemingly impact European politics. Eyes are fixed on the fierce campaign. The Turkish-Dutch row has become an election issue between Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his main rival, the right-wing, anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders, who wasted no time taking advantage of the crisis.

Wilders wants the Netherlands out of the EU, Islam out of the country, and an end to immigration from Muslim countries. If Rutte’s government allowed Turkish officials to enter the country, Wilders would be able to increase his votes in the election.

Nevertheless, the Dutch moves are inciting racism in the heart of Europe, which is even more worrying. There is already a rise in the extreme right in Europe, which threatens its own values of democracy, human rights and equality. From the other side, the Dutch moves effectively aided the Turkish government in galvanizing people to vote “yes” in the referendum. Ankara’s strong reaction is related to this.

However, Turkey’s relations with the Netherlands, and with European countries in general, should not be held hostage to domestic politics. European diplomacy, which praises itself as the cradle of democratic values and civilization, should not fall apart. Turkey and the Netherlands, two NATO members, are dependent on each other. They coordinate closely on security and have significant economic interests, so escalating the diplomatic row will only harm both sides.

• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz.