Boxing with Erdoğan: Why the Netherlands Should Not Ban a Turkish Campaign

Jelle Baartmans argues that liberal Europe should be more courageous vis-à-vis authoritarian regimes.

On June 24 citizens of the Republic of Turkey will go to the polls to cast their vote in early parliamentary and presidential elections. Interestingly, more than 6 million Turkish citizens are living abroad, the majority of them in Western Europe. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has shown on several occasions that he views this diaspora as a strategic campaigning target. Therefore, the announcement of early elections has raised concerns in some Western European countries; there are fears that the elections will cause unrest among Turkish minorities in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. Following Mr. Erdoğan’s announcement that he will also campaign abroad, one of the governing parties in the Netherlands has even advocated for a law that would ban campaigning activity by representatives of unfree and undemocratic regimes.

Riots in Rotterdam: where it all began

Last year in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on the night of March 11-12, Turkish protesters clashed with Dutch riot police. The Turks had gathered in the streets around the Turkish consulate to listen to a campaign speech by Turkish Minister of Family and Social Policies Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya. Ms. Kaya was supposed to call for a ‘yes’ vote for increased presidential powers in an upcoming Turkish referendum. The speech, however, never took place.

The initial Turkish strategy was that Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu would represent President Erdoğan’s ‘yes’ camp in Rotterdam on March 11. Yet, early that morning, the Dutch government blocked Mr. Çavuşoğlu from landing at Rotterdam The Hague Airport on public order and safety grounds. As soon as Mr. Erdoğan learned about this decision, he referred to the Dutch as “nazi remnants and fascists.” Ms Kaya, who was in Germany, was sent to Rotterdam by car to replace Mr. Çavuşoğlu. However, she was detained upon arrival and later escorted back to the German border. By that time, approximately 1,500 Turks had gathered around the consulate. As soon as they found out what had happened, the atmosphere deteriorated and riots broke out in the streets of Rotterdam.

Overall, the Dutch government’s decision was welcomed in the Netherlands. Arguably, fears over public order and safety along with Mr. Erdoğan’s “nazis and fascists” remarks had justified the authorities’ strong measures. However, that is not to say that the prohibition of such campaigning activities should become standard practice. This would undermine the reputation of the Netherlands as a liberal and democratic state.

Repressive measures against repressive regimes?

Parts of the Turkish community in the Netherlands are facing an integration problem. An opinion poll conducted among Turkish-Dutch citizens (double passport holders) last year showed that roughly a two-third majority of them supported President Erdoğan. On the night of March 11-12, 2017, around 1,500 showed that they were willing to demonstrate in the streets to show their support for Mr. Erdoğan, directly challenging the Dutch government. One can debate extensively what constitutes a desirable and successful level of integration, but people vehemently expressing their loyalty to an authoritarian foreign regime is clearly not a good example. There is a value discrepancy between the regime they are supporting – that arbitrarily imprisons journalists and fires academics – and the society in which they are living.

The German government experienced a similar situation as the Netherlands last year. The Turkish referendum caused unrest among Turkish-German citizens as well. In response to Mr. Erdoğan’s announcement that he will be campaigning in Europe for the upcoming elections, German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas stated that this would not be allowed. As a result of last year’s unrest, Germany has decided to ban non-EU politicians from campaigning in Germany in the three months prior to the relevant elections. This announcement undoubtedly increases the domestic approval ratings of the German government and it will prevent politicians such as Mr. Erdoğan from physically addressing the Turkish community in Germany in election times. Nevertheless, it is a superficial measure that does nothing to solve the root problem: the integration of Turks in Germany.

The opportunities of a home game in the arena of free speech

The Netherlands should not make the same mistake. A campaigning speech by Mr. Erdoğan’s AK Party for thousands of Turks in a Dutch city would undoubtedly be a tricky and undesirable scenario. Nevertheless, in case a request to campaign in the Netherlands comes from Ankara, the Dutch government should not dismiss it right away. It should not fight a repressive regime with repression, but rather seize the opportunity; if a free, democratic state with a functioning rule of law as we know it in the EU is truly so great, the Netherlands should confidently step inside the boxing ring. If Mr. Erdoğan wants to come, let him. You are playing a home game! By arranging a private meeting between Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Mr. Erdoğan, there will be ample opportunity for both constructive dialogue and critical notes. Organising a press conference afterwards will be an excellent occasion for Mr. Rutte to emphasise the differences between the Dutch and Turkish political systems, as well as to eulogise about the concepts of liberalism and free speech. Go back to the Enlightenment, make a few sharp jokes. Mr. Erdoğan will have no choice but to stand by silently and listen. Afterwards, the Dutch journalists will do the rest (as they did with newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Pete Hoekstra). Let Özcan Akyol, a famous Turkish-Dutch writer and columnist, hold a freedom lecture simultaneously with Mr. Erdoğan’s campaigning speech. These are just a few ideas. There are endless opportunities. If the Netherlands has the courage to face the Turkish regime in an arena of free speech, with critical journalists as referees and wider Europe as spectators (and supporters), the only possible outcome is victory. If Mr. Erdoğan does not favour such a scenario, then at least it will be him who has turned down Dutch hospitality, instead of the Dutch denying Mr. Erdoğan free speech.

Turning threats into opportunities

Mr. Erdoğan’s address to thousands of Turks in Sarajevo on May 20 has taken away the biggest concern in Western Europe. It is expected that his wish to address the Turkish diaspora has now been satisfied. Nevertheless, my view remains applicable to liberal, democratic Europe: if liberals want to fight those who are undermining its freedom, then they should deploy that freedom instead of giving it up out of fear. Such an approach would take away valuable ammunition that politicians such as Mr. Erdoğan can use against liberal countries and – more importantly – it is a means of reaching out to minority groups such as the Turkish-Dutch, instead of ignoring the problematic integration of segments of the Turkish community. Liberal Europe must show more confidence and assertiveness. If that happens, we might very well see a turning point—from a time when it used to board up its democratic windows out of fear of the repressive intruder, to a time when anybody is welcome for a coffee, but the tyrants such as Mr. Erdoğan know it would be self-destruction.

Jelle Baartmans is a graduate student in International Relations at Leiden University.

Photo by andreastrojak