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Diplomatic Spat Sinks Turkish-Dutch Ties into New Lows

Turkey’s external relations have been increasingly defined by acrimony and different forms of discord with a number of countries over the past two years. The Netherlands, with which until last year Turkey has had cordial ties, was the latest country that embroiled in a diplomatic spat with its NATO ally.

On Monday, the Netherlands abruptly announced the withdrawal of its ambassador to Turkey over a matter that tainted the bilateral ties last year when a Turkish minister was barred from campaigning in Rotterdam.

“The Netherlands and Turkey have recently held talks at various levels. At this stage, these talks do not yet offer a perspective to normalizing the bilateral relations,” the Dutch Foreign Ministry said in a statement, announcing the decision.

“Recent talks offered Turkey and the Netherlands an opportunity to come closer to each other, but we have not been able to agree on the way normalization should take place,” Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra underscored in the statement.

In March 2017, Turkish Family Affairs Minister Fatma Betul Sayar defied a Dutch ban and attempted to enter Rotterdam to hold a rally in a bid to advance the cause of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a referendum about presidential system.

The Dutch police not only blocked the Turkish minister but also escorted her back to the German border. The incident has unleashed a diplomatic row that lasted to this day.

Turkey did not allow the Dutch ambassador who had been on leave at the time of the dispute to return back to Ankara. The subsequent efforts to resolve the crisis have yielded no result.

“This came as a surprise because it looked as if both countries wanted to go back to normalization of the relations. NL-Turkey have many common interests (trade, large Turkish society, NATO, and of course the refugee deal),” Adriaan Schout, a research fellow and Coordinator of Europe Desk at Clingendael, Netherlands Institute of International Relations, told Globe Post Turkey.

According to Mr. Schout, different diplomatic approaches of the two countries played a role in the failure to resolve the last year’s rift. The Netherlands, he said, wanted to simply forget the issue of the Turkish minister.

It was hardly the only matter that bedeviled bilateral ties back then. The belated Dutch response to the botched coup in 2016 as well whipped up a negative sentiment in Ankara and left an impact on the thinking of Turkish officials.

“However,” Mr. Schout argued, “Turkey apparently wants a formal excuse [apology] which, understandably, the [Dutch] government will not make.”

“So, all of a sudden, Turkey plays hardball.”

Turkey’s president was aghast when the Dutch authorities barred the minister and did not allow the plane of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to land in Rotterdam a month before a historic referendum. The April vote in 2017 marked a watershed in the modern political history of Turkey after a constitutional amendment bestowed almost unlimited powers on the presidential office.

President Erdogan then unfurled venom-laced tirades against Germany and the Netherlands, accusing both countries of being Nazi remnants. His tantrums and public neutering of the EU leaders sparked a backlash from both countries, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that Nazi remarks were misplaced and unacceptable.

In the minister saga, the Turkish Foreign Ministry told Dutch Ambassador Cornelis van Rij, then on leave, not to return back to Turkey for some time.

“As long as the Netherlands has no Ambassador to Turkey, the Netherlands will also not issue permission for a new Turkish ambassador to take up duties in the Netherlands,” the Dutch Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday.

Still, how things came to this point appears to be bewildering.

“Relations with the EU and Turkey are colder (generally) and, compared to other EU countries, NL would not easily opt for the toughest approach to Turkey,” the scholar said, expounding on how The Hague drifted to a bold reaction against Ankara after efforts for ending the crisis crumbled.

Only months ago, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte expressed hopes for normalization of ties with Turkey. Speaking to De Telegraaf, he said he was seeking better ties with the Turkish government in Ankara. In frank admission of the prevalent frosty relationship existed between the two sides, Mr. Rutte acknowledged that he had not been in contact with President Erdogan since March.

Despite being present in Hamburg at a security conference, the two leaders eschewed each other.

The Netherlands is the biggest foreign investor in Turkey, and has historically had benign relations with the NATO ally. Its investment in Turkey amounts to nearly $22 billion, accounting roughly 16 percent of the total foreign direct investment.

Dutch-operated Patriot systems were deployed in southern Turkey for several years as a bulwark against potential missile threats from the Bashar al-Assad regime during the Syrian conflict.

“Very important is that the Netherlands don’t break up diplomatic ties but just withdraw their ambassador who wasn’t allowed to enter Turkey already,” Dutch scholar Mark Kranenburg told Globe Post Turkey.

He added: “Even more important in my view is the calm reaction of Turkey. They emphasized diplomatic ties are still working.”

The Turkish government tried to play down the fallout of the envoy pullout and tried to portray it as an unimportant matter that could be handled without much problem.

“This does not mean that diplomatic ties between Turkey and the Netherlands are cut off,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said on Monday.

The Dutch move, according to Mr. Kranenburg, is a negotiation step to put pressure on Turkey.  “It won’t effect EU-Turkey relations immediately because they are almost frozen.”

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