Zeynep AlemdarFounder of the Women in Foreign Policy Initiative

As experts trained in diplomacy and international relations, we try to make sense of what is going on between the Turkish and European diplomatic corps and what it means for the future of relations. But our training is not suited for the new era in which international and domestic affairs are tightly interconnected and skillfully exploited by various populist leaders.

The most important threat to democracy and freedom of speech in today’s world is leaders’ dismissal of the basic courtesy and grace that international diplomacy rests on. Vulgarity is legitimized by the actions and words of world leaders, and some ordinary people see no harm in engaging in hate speech and offensive actions.


Carl BildtFormer prime minister of Sweden

No, it’s the other way around.

I’m used to campaigning with the part of the Swedish electorate that resides abroad, and am familiar with different campaign activities aimed at voters from other countries who reside in Sweden. All of this is part and parcel of being an open and democratic country.

But what’s been happening in recent weeks—with authorities in Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands blocking Turkish attempts to hold rallies in those countries—defies belief. It might be that German local authorities have problems with parking spaces, or that there are occasionally public-order concerns. But when Austria forbids all Turkish political meetings in the country and then, foreseeing the complexities of imposing a ban, goes further and forbids all such foreign activities, things turn really strange.

Will I be arrested if I hold a meeting in Vienna to try to mobilize Swedish voters living there? That would be sheer madness. Will Austrian authorities policy prevent Turkish opposition politicians from holding public meetings? That would be further madness.


Koert DebeufDirector of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Europe

No, it is Europe that is challenging its own freedom of speech. Some European leaders and opinion shapers are using double standards. They defend the publication of cartoons picturing the prophet Muhammad or poems insulting Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but at the same time, they forbid ministers of Erdoğan’s government from talking at meetings in their countries.

The principle of free speech is not a trump card that can be used whenever is convenient. You cannot say “Je suis Charlie” after the January 2015 attack on the offices of the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo but block others from speaking because you don’t like their discourse. You cannot applaud French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron for campaigning among his compatriots in London but condemn Erdoğan for doing the same in Belgium, France, Germany, or the Netherlands.

Europe is not only challenging its freedom of speech. Even worse, it is also undermining the fundament of its liberal democracy. As history shows, the end of free speech is the beginning of the end of a free and democratic society.


Caroline de GruyterEuropean affairs correspondent for NRC Handelsblad

Turkey certainly wants to make it look that way. But what is really at stake is how European countries can maintain some kind of functioning relationship with a large neighbor, NATO ally, and strategic partner whose leadership is increasingly undemocratic and provocative.

Turkey loves to point out that Europe’s freedom of speech applies only to certain people. Emmanuel Macron, one of France’s presidential candidates, spoke to French crowds in London. Italy’s former minister for constitutional reforms Maria Elena Boschi drummed up support among Italians in Zurich for a yes vote in Italy’s 2016 constitutional referendum. No one blinked. Now, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu wants to address campaign rallies in Europe ahead of Turkey’s April 16 constitutional referendum, and objections are raised.

Double standards? No. The objections originated in local security considerations. Hotels and halls refused to host the meetings; local authorities tried to negotiate smaller venues. Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland did this skillfully, albeit with difficulty. All found manageable solutions. France just let Çavuşoğlu speak, and nothing happened.

The Netherlands had less room for diplomatic maneuver, days before its March 15 parliamentary election. There, things exploded. Beyond damaging Dutch-Turkish relations, this spat deeply affected the EU, which was immediately targeted by Turkish rhetoric. Europe needs Turkey to contain migrants and terrorists. Turkey likes to think it doesn’t need anybody.

The escalation could have been sparked by anything, anywhere. Now, the focus should be on geopolitical damage control. It is in Europe’s interest to prevent Turkey from going the way of Russia.


François HeisbourgSpecial adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s primary goal is probably to win Turkey’s April 16 constitutional referendum, as experience elsewhere shows that even the best-crafted plebiscites can turn against their progenitors. Drumming up support from the large Turkish diasporas in France, Germany, and the Netherlands is part of that objective.

Trying to impose the presence of Turkish government ministers on those countries has the added advantage of being a win-win: If the host country rejects their presence, as Germany and the Netherlands did, Ankara can create a narrative of victimization. If the host country accepts the ministers, as France did, Turkey’s leader looks strong. The same applies to the question of whether to allow or prohibit public meetings led by politicians campaigning for a yes vote. For Erdoğan, the positive effect of a ban is magnified if the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or its allies are allowed to hold rallies.

The members of the EU responded to the challenge in a helter-skelter manner, with apparently no attempt to generate a unified response. Once Erdoğan had started to describe Germans as Nazis, it shouldn’t have been difficult for EU leaders to agree on a show of solidarity, for example by refusing to admit Turkish ministers for the duration of the referendum campaign. The Turkish president has proved that the EU is unbelievably feckless.


Bahadır KaleağasıChief executive officer of the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD)

Security versus freedoms. To be or not to be a democracy that can provide for its citizens. That is the crucial question. Many EU countries as well as Turkey face the challenge of terrorism, which varies depending on proximity, the level of violence, public resentment, and domestic electoral concerns. For example, Turkey has rightly been warning some EU states about the contradiction of listing the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a criminal terrorist organization while being unable to prevent the use of the group’s flags and discourses in public events. It would be hard to imagine the same freedom granted to the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

As for the ban on Turkish politicians speaking at public events on Dutch soil, the challenge to the freedom of speech is obvious. However, the public mood on the eve of an election marked by the rise of the extreme Right and xenophobia can justify a diplomatic deal. The fundamental problem goes beyond any temporary bilateral hurdle. It is about Turkey’s wisdom and vision to protect and promote its global soft power as Europe’s Eurasian gateway. It is also about the EU’s wisdom and talent to regain its positive transformative soft power vis-à-vis Turkey.

Keeping Turkey away from the EU’s sphere of influence has been part of the problem. The solutions should be innovative to break current vicious circles. Hopefully, freedoms will prevail at the end.


Ian LesserVice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels

Yes, but in a very ironic fashion. The recent war of words between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the leaders of Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands raises important questions about politicians’ ability to conduct transnational political campaigns and the right to use pointed language, however inflammatory.

The April 16 referendum on a new constitution that would introduce a presidential system in Turkey has been driven by nationalist rhetoric from the start. Erdoğan surely has an eye on his ability to take a confrontational stance with Europe to bolster his popular standing. Even Turkey’s leading opposition party has felt compelled to support him on this issue. Events to mobilize voters in the Turkish diaspora have little to do with promoting free speech and everything to do with gaining advantage with Turks at home and abroad in a referendum that could prove close.

Critical elections in Europe also encourage leaders to sound tough. But the current dispute is made far worse by the deeper, long-running crisis in relations between Ankara and the EU. Ironically, this is a crisis driven in large measure by Turkey’s accelerating slide away from European norms, especially on matters of press freedom and freedom of expression.


Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

For the Turkish government, securing every nationalist vote in the April 16 referendum on whether to introduce a new constitution is of the essence. In Turkey, where freedom of speech is largely suppressed and many leaders from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) are in jail, the campaign is heavily biased in favor of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and toward a yes vote. Abroad, especially in the EU, where some 2 million Turks are eligible to vote, the Turkish leadership is trying to use existing freedoms to campaign at will.

This electoral strategy is highly ironic: to win a vote introducing a one-man-rule system with no checks and balances, the Turkish government restricts freedom of expression at home while criticizing Germany and the Netherlands for not letting Turkish ministers campaign freely on their territories. It is not surprising that EU governments are unenthusiastic about such a strategy.

And when the going gets tough, the Turkish leadership brands European countries and governments with labels such as “Nazi,” “fascist,” and “banana republic,” which are among the most extreme terms one can use in European politics. Beyond freedom of speech, the issue is about a foreign government bringing its electoral battles to three European countries—the Netherlands, France, and Germany—that have their own upcoming elections, and therefore engineering a bitter debate about Europe’s relations with Turkey.


Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is striving to prove Oriana Fallaci right. My formidable Corriere della Sera colleague and friend aimed her 2001 book The Rage and the Pride against immigration and Islam, considered the twin enemies of Western civilization. Erdoğan is fiddling dangerously with his propaganda just to win Turkey’s April 16 constitutional referendum, oblivious to the undercurrent of hatred, racism, and intolerance he’s stirring. In his view, Germany and the Netherlands are fascist countries, and there is no freedom of speech in Europe. This from a populist tyrant who is ready to jail any voice of dissent.

What can be done to tame the excesses of a NATO member and a bulwark against Islamic terrorism? Europe has to tread a very uneasy path. As when confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin, the EU should keep engaging with Turkey on all levels while maintaining a ferocious stand on principles, freedom of speech, tolerance, and rights. That is easy to say, but tougher to implement on the field.

Yet Fallaci was wrong. Immigration is the West’s Trojan horse against Islamic intolerance, not the other way round. Europeans would be dumb to relinquish the subtlest weapon they have in a strategic war: their free culture.


Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy

The responses by Germany and the Netherlands to Turkey’s challenge are responses to threats to the liberal order in Europe, and European nations have to defend themselves from abuses of the freedom of speech by illiberal forces. Turkey’s current government has suppressed independent media and free speech at home and should not be offered access to those countries that take this freedom seriously.

Turkey is challenging not only Europe’s freedom of speech but also the right of sovereign nations to limit the use of their countries by foreign powers for their own—in this case, illiberal—purposes. The Turkish constitutional referendum on April 16 is highly divisive in Turkey itself, and the last thing European nations want is to be seen to favor one side in this crucial domestic issue for Turkey.


Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe

The request by the government in Ankara to address Turkish communities around Europe in the run-up to Turkey’s April 16 constitutional referendum is not in itself an unacceptable demand. Many EU politicians act similarly: during domestic electoral consultations, they travel abroad to convince their compatriots living in other countries to vote for them.

Why, then, is Europe facing the current turmoil? Maybe there is genuine mishandling of the issue, as both sides clumsily try to manage their respective domestic challenges—an internal political scene under populist pressure in the EU and a highly controversial proposed constitutional reform in Turkey—and show a complete failure to communicate their mutual nervousness. Probably, many EU leaders also feel strong resentment of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s repression in his country.

In light of this deadlock, it is regrettable that the EU did not anticipate this issue. All 28 member states and the EU institutions should have taken a united stance when the first skirmishes appeared. Today, they urgently need to show unity and reaffirm both the importance of the right to free speech and the need for all to abide by the rules that apply in any sovereign country with regard to public meetings. One can only hope that some reasonable dialogue can then resume on this basis.