On Wednesday, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte reaped the rewards of his scandalous treatment of Turkish officials. Having tried to curb the popularity of far-right politician Geert Wilders on the campaign trail, the incumbent claimed 31 seats to secure his party a place in the country’s next coalition government. To be clear, Rutte has successfully kept the far right under control, but his “accomplishment” came at a heavy price: He helped anti-immigrant and anti-Turkish sentiments penetrate politics’ mainstream.
The Dutch government’s most recent acts mark the beginning of a new era in Turkey-EU relations. Last weekend, an attempt by politicians from an EU candidate country to meet with their fellow citizens living abroad was blocked by mounted police, K-9 units and an order to shoot peaceful protesters. To add insult to injury, European leaders and EU officials expressed solidarity with the Netherlands and endorsed the mistreatment of a female politician.
The European Union’s decision to defend the Dutch government’s reckless actions established that the tensions between Brussels and Ankara were not temporary. In contrast, it became clear that the current crisis is deep and complex.
In recent years, a smear campaign against Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fueled irrational fears in Europe. The Western media and politicians have become complicit by bundling up foreigners, immigrants, Muslims and Turks and presenting them to the European public as something to be feared. Although some experts were quick to celebrate the Dutch election’s results, fear-mongering continues to erode the core of Western democracies. To be clear, Rutte’s “opportunism” made the fear of Turks — a theme that had originally emerged ahead of the Brexit referendum — a permanent fixture of European politics.
Moving forward, European politicians will start to feel that they are losing control over negative stories and commentaries on Turkey and Erdoğan in Western news outlets. It will become harder and harder to keep a lid on anti-Turkey sentiments in the continent. In the end, it would be no surprise if this dangerous trend turned into a perfect storm.
Likewise, European institutions and the masses will be more difficult to control as a new balance of power emerges between Russia, Europe and the United States. Against the backdrop of a diplomatic spat between Turkey and the Netherlands, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that private employers could prohibit employees from wearing the Islamic headscarf at work. By concluding that a ban on head covers was not a violation of human rights, the court effectively defined the lack of religious headgear as the new normal and a sign of neutrality. In contrast, it maintained that wearing the headscarf was an indication of piousness and reinforced the prejudice that a woman opting to cover her hair would be partial. There should be no doubt that the ECJ’s headscarf ruling will encourage the admirers of Europe’s “normal values” to view women wearing the Islamic headscarf and Muslim places of worship as abnormal and dangerous.
The effort by European governments to side with the “no” campaign ahead of the April 16 constitutional referendum in Turkey created a backlash among Turks. President Erdoğan, in line with popular sentiments, argued that the specter of Nazism and fascism was haunting Europe. His strongly worded statements were intended to serve as a message to the European Union to not meddle in the Turkish referendum. Furthermore, he directed three distinct criticisms against the Europeans: First, by crossing certain lines, European leaders are jeopardizing, not only their friendship with Turkey, but also the core values of Western civilization. Second, the Europeans are destroying the possibility of cooperating with Turkey to pursue mutual, rational interests. They will need Turkey’s friendship as chaos spreads around the world. Third, the EU must stop trying to discipline and push Turks around. Europe’s stability and security depends on Turkey.
One more thing: Don’t the people, who were so heartbroken with Erdoğan’s charges of fascism see that European politicians and reporters constantly refer to the Turkish president as a dictator and a sultan? What Europe desperately needs right now are sensible politicians, such as former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, who urged European leaders to reflect on their own mistakes.