Holland-Turkey mess could play right into Geert Wilders’ hands

Wilders will be hoping the Turkey affair will bring him a surge in support in this week's election

A float featuring U.S. President Donald Trump (l-r), Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Adolf Hitler is seen in Dusseldorf

Monday, March 13, 2017

Henk Overbeek is Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and a member of the Dutch Senate for the Socialist Party.

Here he analyses the current crisis between Turkey and the Netherlands - and what it could do for far-right figurehead Geert Wilders in this week's elections.

The ongoing dispute between Turkey and the Netherlands may have exploded this weekend, but the issue of Turkish ministers campaigning for expat 'yes' votes in the country's upcoming referendum has been building up over the past two weeks. The issue has afflicted not only the Netherlands but also France and Germany, whose Government was also the subject of a ‘Nazi’ slur by President Erdogan.

Obviously it has got out of hand in the case of the Netherlands, and the reason is simple: we have elections this week. This means the Government, and in particular the Prime Minister and the foreign minister, feel compelled to show their strength.

Geert Wilders is breathing down their necks, and down the Prime Minister’s neck in particular. Wilders may only be polling 20%, but he’s been a constant nuisance in the newspapers, a magnet for the right-wing opposition to the current Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

Wilders has been criticising Mr Rutte almost constantly for his weakness in dealing with political Islam. Last year’s refugee deal between Turkey and the EU, which created a ‘one-in, one-out’ system for asylum seekers and allowed Greece to return thousands of refugees to Turkey, has been a major focus of criticism: Dutch politicians were instrumental in getting that deal off the ground so there’s a sense of ownership here.

Wilders will always attack Mr Rutte and his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy because that’s where his votes are. Rutter’s party is centre-right, so Wilders' more extreme party is battling with them for the vote of the sensible right. It’s analogous to the situation between the Tories and UKIP in Britain – an up-and-coming radical movement is trying to chip votes off an established, more centrist party, and the established ones are making concessions to prevent that from happening.

With an election looming on Wednesday, Mr Rutte was compelled to do some grandstanding. Show the people of Holland he has the resolve to take tough decisions and silence the likes of Wilders. So he forbade the Turkish foreign minister from landing in the country, and then the Turkish family affairs minister was ordered to turn back when she arrived at the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam (she had driven up from Germany and passed over the border unnoticed due to our open-border agreement – a fact which, again, may play into Wilders’ hands).

In my personal opinion, as an academic and member of the Dutch Senate, this was excessive. It was an unnecessary escalation. The provocation is clearly coming from the Turkish side; the Dutch government has made it very clear it didn’t want Turkish ministers making campaign speeches here in the Netherlands. But I fail to see the justification for such extreme measures from a legal perspective.

Yes one might point out that the Turkish ministers wanted to garner support for some dramatic changes in their own country, changes which, if enacted, will allow Mr Erdogan to assume strongman presidential powers. Critics might say that it’s dangerous to allow such views to be openly expressed in a liberal country like Holland, that Dutch people might be inspired. But we already have people of that persuasion in this country, and the fact that Wilders is polling so poorly lately suggests they haven’t got much traction.

It would have been far better had the Dutch government followed the example of their German counterpart, by allowing local mayors to deal with the planned pro-Erdogan speeches and citing public safety as the pretext for their cancellation. We didn’t need to turn this into an international issue, and create such an unwelcome distraction on the eve of our general election.

The press reaction was initially quite favourable to the government; many people, Wilders included, were supportive of Mr Rutte’s response. But now you see more thoughtful people raise questions about the wisdom and legality of the Government’s actions. This is always the way - people who have a nuanced opinion always need more time to make up their mind than people who already know the answer.

Whether this shifting sentiment will create problems for Mr Rutte in Wednesday’s election remains to be seen. There is a chance, albeit a very small chance, that it will enable Wilders to pull off something remarkable. But he will have to do something extraordinary to turn this crisis into election success. The odds are stacked against him.

Tonight (Monday) we have a television debate between Wilders and the Prime Minister. Wilders will go after Mr Rutte, there’s no doubt. He will seek to destabilise him, predicating his attack on the spectacle we have witnessed this weekend.

It could work, or it could backfire. Mr Rutte is a very good debater, he’ll be thoroughly prepared. No matter how embarrassing the Turkish affair has been, he won’t let it throw him off course.

But there is no doubt that Wilders has been given a glimmer of light by this crisis. And long-term, as the Netherlands seeks to battle islamophobia, the sort of crude right-wing extremism Wilders espouses, this whole mess is certainly very unhelpful.