Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has loomed over European politics for more than a decade, entangled in the awkward embrace of reluctant allies. This weekend he burst into the middle of a fraught electoral season.
The Dutch were behaving like Nazis, the Germans too, he said, by banning his foreign minister from speaking at rallies in their countries and setting police dogs on Turks who protested the decisions.
For Mr Erdogan, who is gearing up for a crucial referendum on the constitution in April, the diplomatic row was a gift, an urgent issue around which to rally Turkish voters who live in Europe, including 1.5m in Germany. Mr Erdogan is seeking to cement his powers by creating an executive presidency at the referendum, and what is expected to be a closely fought contest, the diaspora’s votes could prove critical.
Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, who faces competition from an anti-Islam opponent at general elections this week, had sought to the defuse the situation. But eight phone calls with Binali Yildirim, Turkey’s prime minister, over the weekend were in vain.
The unseemly spat capped off a year of turmoil in which Mr Erdogan launched a string of verbal attacks against European leaders and highlighted the challenge the EU faces in dealing with Turkey’s increasingly autocratic strongman.
As the ripple effects spread across Europe, even Russia urged restraint, putting Moscow in rare agreement with Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, and Johannes Hahn, the bloc’s enlargement commissioner, who asked Ankara to tone down the rhetoric.
The row comes at the expense of a carefully maintained balancing act that Turkish and European diplomats have quietly worked on — strengthening trade ties while using institutions to register alarm at what the EU considers to be a slide in democratic values with an accession candidate.
A senior EU official said member states had to be tough on “unacceptable statements” and “what happens in terms of public order in their country”. Both Germany and the Netherlands cited concerns about possible unrest for preventing Turkey’s foreign minister addressing rallies.
But the EU official added they also had to be careful of not falling into “the trap of Mr Erdogan who clearly wants escalation ahead of the referendum because he is not sure that he will win”.
“This is exactly why he needs votes in Germany, the Netherlands and other countries,” the official said.
Privately, bureaucrats also fretted over the future of a vital deal designed to stem the flow of Syrian refugees from Turkey to Greece — an agreement Mr Erdogan has held hostage to the demand of visa-free travel for Turks throughout the Schengen area.
“Both sides, they don’t know how to deal with each other,” said Hikmet Cetin, a former Turkish foreign minister. “We are getting no high-level thinking, no calmness. And of course, now, it will look, at the end that Mr Erdogan will get the benefit of this, because the ‘yes’ vote will be more united because of this.”
For years, Mr Erdogan has told his voters that the Europeans could not be trusted, that their hypocrisy allowed Kurdish militants to campaign openly, while Turkey’s leaders were unwelcome. The cancellation of speeches by Turkish officials in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland only buttressed his claims of European hypocrisy.
The tensions risk weakening the already tepid support of Europe’s most powerful leader, German chancellor Angela Merkel, for Turkey’s stalled membership negotiations into the trading bloc.
In Germany, Ms Merkel faces pressure from her own conservative bloc to stop Turkish ministers addressing referendum rallies amid concern that Mr Erdogan’s campaign is fuelling tensions within the country’s large Turkish community — and between Turks and other communities.
“The situation in mosques was calm in general until Turkey’s domestic political tensions spilled out,” said Lamya Kaddor, chair of the Liberal Islamic Association, a small grouping of liberal mosques in Germany. “This has hit the Turkish community in Germany. There’s no question that in Turkish-based mosques in Germany political tensions are playing out.”
Ms Merkel has to preserve relations with Mr Erdogan to keep the refugee deal alive, while sharing her conservative colleagues’ concerns that the president’s drift into authoritarianism is making Turkey an impossible partner for Berlin.
The German government is formally committed to talks on Turkey’s membership, but cautions that their outcome has yet to be determined.
Ms Merkel said in a Bundestag speech last week that “the presidential system [envisaged in the referendum] is more than a problem for the future of Turkey”.
She made no reference to the accession talks, but her meaning was clear.