For politicians in Turkey, the campaign trail can be long indeed. Large communities of Turkish expatriates in the European Union make cities in the bloc popular campaign stops for Turkish candidates during election season. In fact, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a rally in the German city of Karlsruhe prior to his re-election in 2015. But as Germany and the Netherlands — home to some of the largest Turkish populations in Europe — gear up for elections of their own, Turkish statesmen have been having a harder time electioneering there.
On Saturday, officials in Rotterdam refused to admit a pair of Turkish government ministers into the city to campaign on behalf of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) ahead of a landmark Turkish referendum in April. The incident touched off a diplomatic row between the Turkish and Dutch governments, just days after tensions flared between Ankara and Berlin. AKP supporters clashed with security forces in the Netherlands, and in Istanbul, demonstrators replaced the Dutch flag at the country's consulate with a Turkish one. Turkish officials have even floated the idea of diplomatically sanctioning the Netherlands or making a complaint against the country with the European Court of Human Rights. The episode raises questions about the future of Turkey's fair-weather alliance with the European Union as waves of nationalism sweep voters on either side of the feud.
For Turkey's ruling party, securing the expatriate vote is essential for success in the upcoming referendum, scheduled for April 16. The vote will determine whether Erdogan's administration can move forward with constitutional reforms to overhaul the government by curtailing the legislature's authority and eliminating the office of prime minister while shifting the powers of the judiciary and increasing those of the president. Victory is far from guaranteed, though, despite Erdogan's popularity and the AKP's enduring appeal to voters. Turkey's economy is foundering, all the more so since the failed coup in July 2016. Between the Turkish lira's frailty, the country's heavy corporate debt, flagging foreign investment and chronically low tourism, AKP leaders are worried that Turkey's economic woes will sway voters when they head to the polls next month. The estimated 3 million eligible Turkish voters living in Western Europe could make or break the referendum's passage. And since the foiled coup, nationalist sentiment has surged among Turkish expatriates in Europe.
Politicians in the European Union, however, have campaigns of their own to consider. The Netherlands will hold a general election on Wednesday, followed by presidential votes in France in April and May and a general election in Germany in September. In each race, parties that oppose immigration generally — and immigration from Muslim-majority countries in particular — will perform well. These parties, moreover, oppose Turkey's accession to the European Union. Though rallies held by Turkish politicians have long been controversial in Western Europe, the impending elections have subjected them to even greater scrutiny. By banning Turkish officials from staging political rallies, moderate EU governments hope to even the playing field with their nationalist rivals and deprive them of opportunities to increase their polling numbers. Opposition parties in France, for instance, seized on a Turkish political event held in the country on Sunday to attack the current administration.
To further complicate matters, relations between Turkey and the European Union are under growing strain. The Turkish government has accused the European Union of reneging on the terms of its migrant deal with Ankara. Under the agreement, Brussels promised to grant Turkish citizens visa-free travel to the European Union, accelerate negotiations over Turkey's accession to the bloc and give the country financial assistance to offset the costs of harboring millions of asylum seekers within its borders. EU governments, meanwhile, have criticized Erdogan for cracking down on his political opposition in the wake of the coup.
Notwithstanding their differences, neither side can afford to sacrifice its relationship with the other in the interest of domestic politics. Politicians in the European Union cannot risk the migrant deal's collapse, especially in an election year. Turkey, likewise, still intends to negotiate a broader customs union with the European Union and depends on trade with and investment from countries such as the Netherlands and Germany to keep its economy afloat. Both countries send millions of tourists to Turkey each year. More than 6,000 German companies are active in Turkey, across nearly every economic sector, according to the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Furthermore, the Netherlands is the biggest source of foreign direct investment in Turkey, accounting for 16 percent of total inflow. Since some of this money doubtless hails from Turkish expatriates in the Netherlands, imposing sanctions on the country may well end up hurting the very voters the AKP is trying to woo. Turkey will also be judicious in deciding whether to sanction Dutch imports or investment, knowing better than to bite the hand that feeds it.
The tiff between Turkey and some European countries is just one complication that the waves of nationalism sweeping each side have created. Once the constitutional referendum is complete, regardless of its outcome, Ankara's campaign frenzy will subside, as will the pressure on European governments over Turkish political rallies. In the meantime, as the Turkish government tries at once to appeal to its constituents and maintain its economic ties with Europe, its balancing act will be tricky.