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How Turkey’s outreach to its diaspora is inflaming tensions with Europe

- March 26, 2018
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on March 14 a diplomatic row with the Netherlands could not be dismissed with an apology and warned of further possible measures, after Ankara suspended high-level diplomatic ties with the Dutch. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Turkey’s relations with Europe took another strained turn. In early February, the Dutch government announced it had recalled its ambassador to Turkey and would not be receiving a new Turkish ambassador to the Netherlands. The Dutch government then halted diplomatic talks with Ankara and do not expect to normalize ties any time soon.

The diplomatic tit-for-tat continued. In late February, Turkey summoned the Netherlands’s chargé d’affaires to condemn a proposed bill that would see the Netherlands recognize the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 as “genocide.”

An impasse with the Netherlands does not bode well for Turkey’s economic interests: 85 percent of Turkey’s foreign investments come from the West, with the Netherlands being the top foreign investor in Turkey. Worsening relations with one of the founding members of the European Union also jeopardizes Turkey’s E.U. bid.

The origins of the crisis

The unprecedented diplomatic crisis between the two NATO allies goes back a year. During the run-up to a Turkish constitutional referendum in April, the Dutch government did not allow Turkish politicians to hold events in the Netherlands. Diplomatic tensions further escalated when Dutch officials detained a Turkish government minister, to prevent her from speaking at an election rally in Rotterdam.

The acrimony continued to intensify as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to the Netherlands as a “Nazi remnant” and a “banana republic,” and called for boycotts and sanctions against the country.

Broader E.U. concerns

The Netherlands is not the only European state that has expressed discomfort with Turkey’s increasing sway over its diaspora. German authorities stopped several pro-Turkish government campaign activities, which were scheduled to take place before the April Turkish constitutional referendum, citing security concerns. In a similar vein, Austria’s president said such rallies were unwelcome.

Despite the beginning of large-scale Turkish emigration to Europe in the 1960s, Turkey’s engagement with its diasporic community has gained momentum only recently, with the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rise to power in 2002. Apart from organizing pro-government rallies in European cities with the help of a new lobby organization called the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD), Turkey has taken other firm steps to cultivate ties with its expatriates. These include the establishment of the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Relative Communities in 2010, an overarching institution designed to streamline the government’s activities targeting Turks living abroad, and the introduction of absentee voting in 2014.

Home states’ interest in their diasporic communities is hardly a rare or new phenomenon. In fact, more than half of U.N. member countries have at least one state institution tasked with the management of diaspora affairs, many at the ministerial level, including India, Armenia and Lebanon.

European countries also have institutions and policies aimed at their expatriates. Germany and the Netherlands have sub-ministry level diaspora institutions. Why then are both these countries’ governments opposed to Turkey’s efforts to reach out to its diaspora in Europe?

Turkish diaspora: Largest Muslim immigrant group in Europe

The first reason is the considerable population of the Turkish diaspora in Europe. Turkey is among the world’s top 10 emigration countries. The Turkish community living abroad amounts to more than 6 million, of whom approximately 5.5 million live in Western European countries. These numbers render the Turkish diaspora the largest Muslim immigrant group in Europe.

Germany, the Netherlands and Austria are some of the countries that host the largest Turkish expatriate population in the world. European policymakers are aware that any homeland-related tension imported to their territories by Turkish officials would cause serious local problems given the already existing concern about failures of Muslim integration in Europe and Turkey’s democratic backsliding.

Turkish communities abroad are very insulated  

Second, as my research shows, diaspora populations with stronger grievances against host states are more likely to be wooed by homelands’ outreach efforts. European host countries know that Turkish officials’ embracive approach toward their expatriates resonate well with members of the Turkish diasporic community because of Turks’ feelings of isolation and marginalization in their host countries.

Studies document that Turks are the least integrated immigrant group in Germany. Turks feel excluded in the Netherlands and Austria, too. The present capacity of Turkey to exert influence over its expatriates should induce European states to better integrate Turks.

Turkish government’s manipulation beyond borders

Third, European host countries are concerned that Turkey has been manipulating its emigre population in Europe to advance its domestic and foreign policy interests, such as the consolidation of the incumbent AKP’s political presence by canvassing expatriate votes.

Turkey’s other goals include the extension of its soft power beyond its borders in line with Ankara’s neo-Ottoman foreign policy and the mobilization of diaspora action against host state policies that are considered to be harmful to the homeland’s interests, such as the recognition of the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 as genocide by European states. European leaders interpret such initiatives as a direct intervention in their domestic affairs.

Competition over migration affairs

Finally, in a context where Turkey has increased its political leverage as the leading host of refugees in the world and an active player in the E.U.-Turkey migrant deal, European countries have found themselves in a power competition with Turkey in the field of migration affairs. Turkey’s assertive moves toward its diaspora have only exacerbated European leaders’ frustration in this regard.

It is clear that Turkey’s spiraling tension with European states will have immediate negative consequences for Turkey’s E.U. membership prospects. What is yet to be determined is how the widening rift between Turkey and Europe will affect the Turkish diaspora’s status as a group that has become increasingly torn between their home and host states.

Ayca Arkilic is a lecturer in the political science and international relations program at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Her research is on state-diaspora relations and immigrants’ political participation in Western Europe.