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Opinion: Turkey's Erdogan stokes tensions with Europe

Turkey's Erdogan is manufacturing a crisis with Europe to rally support for one-man rule at home. Europe should avoid falling into the trap.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a masterful politician, never missing the opportunity to use or even manufacture a crisis to serve his agenda.  Each crisis - whether a massive corruption scandal, the Gezi Park protests, renewed conflict with Kurdish militants or a failed coup - has led to the consolidation of his grip over the state and society.

Now, by escalating a diplomatic row with several European countries, he is trying to stoke nationalist and Islamist sentiment domestically and among the Turkish diaspora ahead of an April 16 referendum on whether to dramatically expand the powers of the presidency.

The government's bombastic rhetoric on the so-called Tulip Crisis with the Netherlands and a similar spat with Germany is designed to portray Turkey as a victim under attack from a hostile Europe.

Over the years, Turkey has sought to externalize domestic problems by accusing a dizzying array of international bodies of conspiring against it.  It's an old and effective card that plays well into the Turkish psyche. "A Turk has no other friend but a Turk," says one Turkish proverb.

Watch video 01:56

Rift between Turkey and Netherlands widens

Tight race

For Erdogan, the stakes of the referendum are high. Polls show a tight race and suggest that even some of the government's supporters will not back the constitutional changes. Pro-government polls have a "Yes" vote prevailing, while opposition polls lean towards a "No."

The outcome is likely to boil down to the nationalist vote, which is why a manufactured crisis with Europe over campaigning for the referendum may serve the government.

The ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) controversially allied with the government to pass the constitutional amendments through parliament in January.  However, the decision split the MHP, leading several prominent dissident lawmakers to be expelled from the party.  The wildcard that is likely to determine the referendum results, therefore, is how the party's grassroots will vote.

The government argues that the presidential system would make Turkey "strong, united and independent" as it faces an array of real and imagined internal and external threats. Ironically, those arguments are made even as Erdogan's policies and personal ambition have led to more instability and a weaker country.

Anyone against the referendum has been labeled a potential "terrorist" or coup supporter who wants to undermine Turkey.  The accusations extend to European states, which the Turkish government accuses of supporting Kurdish militants and putschists while advocating for a "No" vote. 

Watch video 02:13

Turkish prime minister campaigns in Germany

Balancing act for Europe

Europe is rightly worried about Turkey's trajectory. If the referendum passes, it will sweep away what little is left of democracy, create further polarization and enshrine one-man rule.

Concerned as they may be about campaigning on their soil, European leaders should avoid fueling a war of words with the Turkish government weeks before the referendum.

The Dutch were correct to prevent Turkish ministers from campaigning only days before elections in the Netherlands. However, by blocking Turkish ministers from speaking at diplomatic posts or to small gatherings, some European states may be causing greater harm than good by allowing Erdogan to score propaganda points and rally nationalist voters. This undermines the "No" vote.

It may also set the stage for Erdogan to personally come to Europe to address supporters, allowing him to present himself as a strongman who defied the continent.

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