Turkey’s president escalated his diplomatic row with the Netherlands on Tuesday, claiming the country had a “rotten character” and blamed Dutch troops for the worst massacre in Europe since the second world war.
The remarks by Recep Tayyip Erdogan come less than 24 hours before Dutch voters go to the polls in a national election that has been coloured by a heated debate about the role of Islam in Dutch society, spurred by anti-Islam candidate Geert Wilders, whose Freedom party (PVV) is polling second in the race.
“We know the Netherlands and the Dutch from the Srebrenica massacre,” Mr Erdogan said, invoking the most shameful episode in modern Dutch history. “We know how rotten their character is from their massacre of 8,000 Bosnians there.”
In 1995, Dutch troops serving as UN peacekeepers failed to prevent Bosnian Serb forces murdering 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia.
Mr Erdogan’s escalation comes in the midst of an increasingly vitriolic tit-for-tat between Ankara and The Hague, which began at the weekend after Dutch officials barred Turkish ministers from campaigning in Turkish communities inside the Netherlands.
Turkey’s ministers have been rallying Turkish expat communities across Europe to win support for Erdogan-backed constitutional changes, which will be voted on in a referendum next month.
Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister whose People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is slightly ahead of PVV, has seen his poll numbers rise in recent days because of his hardline stance with Ankara. On Tuesday, he called Mr Erdogan’s comments “a disgusting distortion of history”, adding: “We will not lower ourselves to this level. It is totally unacceptable.”
We know the Netherlands and the Dutch from the Srebrenica massacre. We know how rotten their character is from their massacre of 8,000 Bosnians there
Earlier on Tuesday Mr Rutte had issued a call for calm in the dispute with Turkey.
Mr Erdogan, who has also benefited domestically from the row with Mr Rutte, has sought to broaden his diplomatic row to take on all of the EU, particularly Germany, which has had similar run-ins with Ankara over campaigning in Germany’s large Turkish community.
The Turkish president said Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, was “no different from the Netherlands” and urged émigré Turks to not vote for “the government and the racists” in upcoming European elections. Ms Merkel faces a tough re-election bid in September.
The diplomatic row began when Ankara’s foreign minister was denied entry to the Netherlands on Saturday for a campaign rally in favour of Mr Erdogan’s constitutional reforms. Armed Dutch police also intercepted another Turkish minister, Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, on her way to the rally in Rotterdam and escorted her back to the German border.
In a televised debate on Monday night, Mr Wilders called on the Netherlands to expel the Turkish ambassador.
“That’s the difference between tweeting from your couch and governing the country. If you govern the country, you have to take sensible decisions, and that isn’t sensible,” Mr Rutte replied.
On Monday night, Ankara confirmed that the Dutch ambassador would not be welcome to return to Turkey.
Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, and Johannes Hahn, the bloc’s enlargement commissioner, have also weighed in, criticising Mr Erdogan’s proposed constitutional changes and his recent rhetoric.
Turkey’s foreign ministry angrily rejected the EU criticism. “The EU should realise that the statement fuels extremism, such as xenophobia and anti-Turkish sentiments, because the call to refrain from excessive statements and actions that risk further exacerbating the situation is made only to Turkey, instead of the countries that caused this situation by violating diplomatic conventions and international law,” it said.
Russia and Nato have both called for a de-escalation of the Turkey-Netherlands row.
During Monday night’s debate Mr Rutte reiterated that he would not form a coalition government with Mr Wilders’ party, even ruling out forming a government that relied on support from the anti-immigration party. “I’m not going to work with such a party again,” said Mr Rutte, whose first minority government was propped up by PVV after the 2010 elections.
In response, Mr Wilders labelled Mr Rutte a liar, citing the prime minister’s broken pledge not to support a bailout of Greece during the 2012 election.
Polls indicate that the Dutch election will be extremely tight. Mr Rutte’s centre-right party VVD sits atop most polls, just 3 percentage points ahead of the PVV. Most polls show a large percentage of voters remain undecided.
Several other parties have support that is only slightly lower, including the centrist liberal D66, the Christian Democratic Appeal and leftwing GreenLeft.