Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan accused Germany of "fascist actions" reminiscent of "Nazi practices" in a growing diplomatic rift over the cancellation of political rallies aimed at propping support for him among the 1.5 million Turks living in Germany. Erdogan's latest outburst on Sunday took place days after German authorities withdrew permission for two rallies by Turkish citizens in German cities, at which Turkish ministers were to urge a "Yes" vote in a referendum next month on granting Erdogan sweeping new presidential, almost dictatorial according to some, powers.
Speaking in Istanbul, the Turkish president fanned the flames with a stinging verbal attack.
"In Germany, they are not allowing our friends to speak. Let them do so. Do you think that by not allowing them to speak the votes in Germany will come out 'no' instead of 'yes?'" Erdogan said. "Germany, you don't have anything to do with democracy. These current practices of yours are no different than the Nazi practices of the past." the Turkish president said at a rally in Istanbul.
"When we say that, they get disturbed. Why are you disturbed?"
"We will talk about Germany's actions in the international arena and we will put them to shame in the eyes of the world," Erdogan said and added "We don't want to see their fascist actions. We thought that era was in the past, but apparently it isn't."
On Thursday, Turkey's justice minister canceled a meeting with his German counterpart after local authorities in southwest Germany withdrew permission for him to use a venue to hold a rally near the French border that was part of a campaign to get Turks in Germany to vote "yes" in the referendum, AP reports. Berlin says the meetings were canceled by local authorities on security grounds. Turkey's economy minister, Nihat Zeybekci, was due to speak at two events in western Germany in Leverkusen and Cologne on Sunday. There are about 1.4 million people in Germany who are eligible to vote in the Turkish referendum.
While Erdogan's remarks - like other populist leaders, he is a man "admired by many for his rhetorical flourishes" as Reuters puts it - could win support among many of those who see Turkey threatened by militant attacks and abandoned by putative allies. But they may damage economic ties at a time when Turkey faces rising unemployment and inflation. 10% of Turkish exports go to Germany. Germany accounts for about 11% of Turkish imports.
Still, Erdogan's harsh words bring to the foreign political arena the heated climate in Turkey since a failed army attempt to topple the president in July. Mass arrests and dismissals in professions from the military to academia, journalism to science, have been heavily criticized in the West.
The latest row has dragged relations between the two NATO partners to a new low. At the same time, public outrage is mounting in Germany over Ankara's arrest of a Turkish-German journalist.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's office had no immediate comment on the remarks but the deputy leader of her Christian Democratic Union party said the Turkish president was "reacting like a stubborn child that cannot have his way". Julia Kloeckner, a deputy leader of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, told the German daily Bild that "the Nazi comparison is a new high point of intemperance.”
The latest confrontation was fanning anger across the European Union which Turkey, now with little real conviction, aspires to join.
Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, in an interview with the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, repeated his recurring opinion to sever ties with Turkey and said it's time to pull the plug on long-stalled moves to bring Turkey into the 28-nation EU.
"We shouldn't just temporarily suspend the accession talks with Turkey but end them," Kern said. "We can't continue to negotiate about membership with a country that has been steadily distancing itself for years, during ongoing access talks, from democratic standards and principles of the rule of law."
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A similar situation is developing in the Netherlands where the Dutch government is investigating whether it can halt a rally being planned for later in the week at which Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is reportedly due to speak. Prime Minister Mark Rutte told Dutch broadcaster NOS on Saturday that his government "is looking at all legal avenues to prevent such a visit." Rutte said the proposed constitutional changes take Turkey, an aspirant European Union member state, "in a less democratic direction."
"We believe that Dutch public space is not the place for political campaigns of other countries," Rutte wrote earlier on his Facebook page. Kern urged "a concerted approach by the EU to prevent such campaign appearances," saying then specific countries like Germany would not come under pressure from Turkey.
Meanwhile, at an election campaign event in Amsterdam, Dutch populist challenger in the upcoming March 15 elections, Geert Wilders also resorted to extreme-right comparisons, calling Erdogan an "Islamo-fascist leader." Wilders, whose Party for Freedom is lagging only slightly behind Rutte's VVD party in polls before the Dutch March 15 election for parliament's lower house, said that "I think that coming here to advocate a change of the Turkish constitution that will only strengthen the Islamo-fascist leader Erdogan of Turkey more than Parliament, Turkish parliament, is the worst thing that could happen to us," Wilders told reporters at a campaign event.
Just like in the US, it now appears that in Europe too when one needs to make a really "bold" political statement, the logical recourse is to just call one's adversary fascist, or simply "Nazi."
Wilders added that if he were the Dutch prime minister, "''I would call the whole cabinet of Turkey 'persona non grata' for a month or two, not allowing them to come here."
Kern, however, pointed out that totally cutting ties with Ankara wouldn't be in EU interests. An EU migrant deal with Turkey, which also is a NATO member, has significantly cut down the number of migrants crossing into Europe. "We should realign the relationship, without the illusion of EU membership," Kern said. "Turkey is an important partner in security matters, on migration and on economic cooperation. Turkey has stuck to all of its commitments resulting from the refugee deal, in any case. We should build upon that."
For now, Erdogan realizes this, and he also grasps that Turkey maintains the leverage in relations with Europe, not least of all because Turkey withholds some 2 million Syrian refugees that could potentially flood Europe should a total breakdown in relations between Turkey and Europe take place. How much longer his outbursts will be tolerated by an increasingly displeased German population, for whom Nazi comparisons may be the stick that breaks the proverbial camel's back, remains to be seen.