Does the Turkish government have a right to carry out electioneering in Holland, Germany, France and Switzerland? This has become a heated question in Europe in recent days, as officials in President Erdogan’s government have visited various European countries to drum up support among ex-pat Turks for Erdogan’s upcoming referendum to grant himself new powers. There have been clashes, too, most notably in Rotterdam after the Dutch authorities escorted a Turkish official to the border.
Erdogan used the N-word – Nazi – to condemn the Dutch and German governments for refusing to allow his ministers to organise political meetings in their countries. His use of this term underlines the seriousness of the tensions that have erupted between the Turkish and European governments. Erdogan, whose referendum for new presidential powers is a very high-stakes one, believes he has the right to mobilise support for his campaign among his compatriots in Western European societies, and that governments that prevent him from doing so are authoritarian, and even Nazi-like. But is he right?
The answer to this question seems, at first sight, to be straightforward. In principle, the government of a sovereign nation, be it Holland, Germany or Turkey itself, has the authority to decide whether or not to allow representatives of foreign governments and parties to conduct political activities within its borders. Governments are rightly wary of allowing representatives of foreign powers to turn their nation into a political battleground. In principle, they have the right to regard such activities as unwelcome, as a kind of foreign intervention in their domestic affairs.
They also have the right to be concerned about Erdogan’s attempts to influence their citizens who are of Turkish origin. In countries such as Germany, the Turkish community is deeply divided, and Erdogan’s attempts to mobilise support among expatriates could lead to an eruption of conflict between different factions. This was graphically demonstrated by the rioting in Rotterdam at the weekend. This was a protest against the decision of the Dutch government to prevent Erdogan’s minister for the family, Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, from entering the local consulate. The Turkish government’s attempt to export its referendum campaign swiftly blew up into a diplomatic row, with important geopolitical consequences. Erdogan’s promise that Holland would ‘pay the price’ for its treatment of his minister suggests he is more than happy to risk escalating international tensions in order to consolidate his power at home.