The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has held the Netherlands responsible for the worst genocide in Europe since the second world war as the row over Turkish ministers addressing pro-Erdoğan rallies in the country deepened.
In a speech televised live on Tuesday, Erdoğan said: “We know the Netherlands and the Dutch from the Srebrenica massacre. We know how rotten their character is from their massacre of 8,000 Bosnians there.”
The comments followed Turkey’s suspension of diplomatic relations with the Netherlands on Monday and Erdoğan twice describing the Dutch government as Nazis on Saturday after his foreign minister and family affairs minister were prevented from attending rallies.
The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, faces a general election on Wednesday in which the far-right leader, Geert Wilders, could win the largest number of seats. Rutte earlier on Tuesday played down the impact of Turkey’s diplomatic sanctions, which he said were “not too bad” but were inappropriate as the Netherlands had more to be angry about.
However, after Erdoğan’s speech Rutte told the Dutch TV channel RTL Nieuws that Erdoğan “continues to escalate the situation”, adding the Srebrenica claim was “a repugnant historical falsehood”.
“Erdoğan’s tone is getting more and more hysterical, not only against The Netherlands, but also against Germany,” he said. “We won’t sink to that level and now we’re being confronted with an idiotic fact ... It’s totally unacceptable.”
Turkey is holding a referendum on 16 April on extending Erdoğan’s presidential powers where the votes of Turkish citizens in EU countries will be crucial.
Erdoğan’s decision to use the Srebrenica genocide, for which a previous Dutch government resigned over its failure to prevent, as a further attack on the Netherlands showed that Ankara does not intend to back down from the dispute.
A lightly armed force of 110 Dutch UN peacekeepers failed to prevent a Bosnian Serb force commanded by Gen Ratko Mladić entering what had been designated a safe haven on 11 July 1995. Muslim men and boys were rounded up, executed and pushed into mass graves.
The former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić was found guilty of genocide over the massacre by the UN tribunal in March 2016 and sentenced to 40 years in jail.
Erdoğan said in his speech he would not accept an apology from the Netherlands over the treatment of the ministers and suggested that further action could be taken.
He accused the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, of attacking Turkey the same way that Dutch police used dogs and water cannon to disperse protesters outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam. Erdoğan said Merkel was “no different from the Netherlands”, and urged emigre Turks not to vote for “the government and the racists” in upcoming European elections.
Erdoğan had on Monday defied pleas from Brussels to tone down his rhetoric, repeating accusations of European “nazism” and saying his ministers would take their treatment by the Dutch to the European court of human rights.
The Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement on Tuesday that the EU’s stance on Turkey was short-sighted and “carried no value” for Turkey. It said the EU had “ignored the violation of diplomatic conventions and the law”.
The Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland, all of which have large Turkish immigrant communities, have cited security and other concerns as reasons not to allow Turkish officials to campaign in their countries in favour of a referendum vote. But with as many as 1.4 million Turkish voters in Germany alone, Erdoğan cannot afford to ignore the foreign electorate.
Austria’s chancellor, Christian Kern, called on Monday for an EU-wide ban on Turkish rallies, saying it would take pressure off individual countries. But Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, said he had doubts as to whether the bloc should collectively decide on a rally ban.
Analysts said the Turkish president was using the crisis to show voters that his strong leadership was needed against a Europe he routinely presents as hostile.
Erdoğan was “looking for ‘imagined’ foreign enemies to boost his nationalist base in the run-up to the referendum”, said Soner Çağaptay, the director of the Turkish research programme at the Washington Institute.
Marc Pierini, a former EU envoy to Turkey, said he saw no immediate solution to the crisis. “The referendum outcome in Turkey is very tight and the leadership will do everything to ramp up the nationalist narrative to garner more votes,” he said.
The standoff has further strained relations already frayed over human rights, while repeated indications from Erdoğan that he could personally try to address rallies in EU countries risk further inflaming the situation.
The row looks likely to dim further Turkey’s prospects of joining the EU, a process that has been under way for more than 50 years. “The formal end of accession negotiations with Turkey now looks inevitable,” the German commentator Daniel Brössler wrote in Süddeutsche Zeitung.