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Opinion

Opinion: Red card for Erdogan

Turkey's government has been using increasingly rough tactics to force campaign appearances in Europe. Now, the Netherlands have barred Turkish ministers from holding events. The right reaction, says DW's Kerstin Knipp.

The good news on Saturday came from the Netherlands. In the morning, the Dutch barred Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu's plane from landing in the country. The minister was slated to give an election campaign speech in Rotterdam in the evening - against the will of the Dutch government and the majority of the people. Cavusoglu did not allow himself to be swayed and instead insisted on making his appearance, even threatening sanctions, in what is a strange interpretation of laws governing international hospitality. Now his airplane has to remain on the ground.

Later in the day, Turkish Family Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya was expelled from the Netherlands and forced to return to Istanbul. Both responses by the Dutch government were right and proper.

Until now, politicians refrained from taking their election campaigns to foreign countries out of respect to their international partners. But that is not what Erdogan's team has done. They have been trying to force their agenda on other countries by using violent language and below-the-belt insults - for example, there were claims of Germany using "Nazi methods," and now Erdogan himself has insulted the Dutch by calling them fascists.  The fact that such methods disrupt previously friendly relations to an unprecedented degree seems to be something that Turkish government representatives are willing to accept for the sake of their own political futures.

A daring political maneuver

Knipp Kersten Kommentarbild App

DW's Kersten Knipp

The fact that there is even a debate on whether such smash-and-grab tactics should be tolerated is not to be blamed solely on the restraint of western European diplomats. Western politicians want to prevent - using passive means - the Turkish state from declining into the autocratic regime that President Erdogan seems to want to create through the presidential system he is advocating. It could thus make sense to allow Erdogan's team to make election campaign appearances in western Europe. This would deflate Erdogan's propaganda about a Turkey surrounded by hostile neighbors, taking the wind from his sails. If the tactic worked, then Erdogan and his people would be left standing empty-handed after a lost referendum. They would be embarrassed and their propaganda exposed. The European restraint would have paid off.

The problem is, however, that nobody knows what the Turkish people will decide. If Erdogan triumphs, he can boast to his electorate about how he even has neighboring European states under control.

Taking offense has become a political style

Erdogan does indeed have clout in western Europe, including in Germany: In addition to the leverage he has through the EU-Turkey refugee deal brokered by German Chancellor Merkel, he also has many supporters living in Germany.

Watch video 02:36

Tensions between Turkey and the Netherlands

Of course, not all Germans of Turkish origin support him. But the 1.4 million Germans of Turkish extraction and Turkish citizens who are allowed to vote in Turkey seem to play a significant role for the Turkish president. It has been argued that Turkish politicians should be permitted to carry out their election campaigns for the sake of these citizens. If not, AKP supporters in Germany could politically isolate themselves.

That is a very possible scenario, and one whose consequences could prove to be serious. But the possibility should not intimidate anyone. Allowing it to do so would give Erdogan's populist logic a foothold in Germany as well. For concerns that his supporters could turn their backs on German politics imply that political arguments no longer count, and that taking offense and being angry prevail as defining principles.

People who cannot or do not want to understand that Germany cannot act as a stage for Turkish politicians have a strange relationship to the country they live in. To put things in a friendly manner, one could say that such a person feels quite attached to their old home country. But this still does not explain why people living in Germany support an autocratic system that has no impact on their lives in Germany. However, it does pose the question as to whether the loyalties that come to light in this issue are good for Germany and Turkey in the long run.

The statesman's fear of the referendum

But actually, Erdogan is trying to capitalize on this double, or perhaps split, loyalty. The way things look right now, he is speculating on the alienation of his supporters in Germany from the state they live in. It is indeed difficult to prevent this process of alienation. But Erdogan should not be shown symbolic support by allowing him and his team to spread their propaganda in Germany.

On the other hand, there are reasons to take a relaxed view of matters. The fact that Erdogan is so keen on wooing his supporters in Germany may also show that he is not certain of winning in Turkey and needs every vote he can get. It is quite possible that the majority of Turks will show the Turkish president the red card in April and make it clear that they have had enough of his autocratic course.

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