Turkey's Erdogan says EU on 'anti-Islam crusade'

Fulya OZERKAN, Stuart WILLIAMS
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a referendum on increasing his powers

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday said the EU has started a crusade against Islam with a ruling on Islamic headscarves and warned the Netherlands that Ankara was no longer a friend, in a worsening diplomatic crisis.

Turkey and the European Union are locked in their most explosive row in years after key EU members Germany and the Netherlands blocked Turkish ministers from holding rallies to win support for expanding Erdogan's powers in a referendum.

Ankara has expressed dismay over the rise of the anti-immigrant far-right in Europe but on Wednesday showed no pleasure over the election win of liberal Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, with the crisis showing no sign of abating.

Erdogan accused the EU's top court of starting a "crusade" against Islam after a ruling that allows European companies to ban employees from wearing religious or political symbols including the Islamic headscarf.

"The European Union's court, the European Court of Justice, my esteemed brothers, have started a crusade struggle against the (Muslim) crescent," Erdogan said in a televised speech.

"Europe is swiftly rolling back to the days before World War II," he added.

- 'Rutte same as Wilders' -

In Wednesday's elections, Dutch voters returned Rutte's liberals to power seeing off a challenge from the party of anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders.

But with the acrimony that followed the blocking by the Dutch of Turkish ministers from holding political rallies still raging, Ankara said it saw no difference between the Dutch parties.

"Hey Rutte! You may have emerged as the number one party in the election but you must know that you have lost Turkey as your friend," Erdogan said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu earlier said there was "no difference" between the ruling Dutch liberals and the "fascist" Wilders.

Cavusoglu also predicted that "religious wars" will start in Europe due to the rise of the far right, saying the continent was being taken "to the cliff".

- 'Unacceptable remarks' -

Erdogan has enflamed the row by repeatedly accusing Dutch and German politicians of acting like "Nazis". On Wednesday, he claimed the "spirit of fascism" was rampant in Europe.

Analysts say the Turkish strongman wants to be seen as standing up strongly to Europe in order to sweep up nationalist votes ahead of the April 16 referendum on the constitutional changes expanding his powers.

But his volcanic rhetoric has not gone down well in the EU and has raised questions about the continuation of Turkey's half century long bid to join the bloc.

The French and German leaders on Thursday condemned Erdogan's "unacceptable" remarks.

Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel "consider comparisons with Nazism and aggressive statements against Germany and other member states unacceptable", they said in a joint statement after speaking by telephone, the French president's office said.

- 'Implement migrant deal' -

Turkey has also raised alarm in Brussels by threatening to unilaterally scrap a March 2016 deal that has substantially reduced the flow of migrants and refugees to the EU.

"We can stop it (the deal) unilaterally. We have not yet informed our (EU) counterparts, all of this is in our hands," Cavusoglu told 24 TV in an interview.

"From now on, we can say 'we will not apply it and it will be over'," he added.

He lambasted the EU for failing to allow Turks visa-free travel in return for the deal, an incentive that had been promised to Turkey if it fulfilled its side of the bargain.

The deal has been praised for preventing a repeat of the surge of migrants into Europe seen in 2015 that fanned the rise of the far-right.

The EU Commission said that it expected Turkey to implement the accord.

"This is an engagement of mutual trust and delivery and we expect that both sides will comply with their commitments," spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters.

Cavusoglu said Turkey was no longer implementing a key part of the deal, whereby it took back migrants who landed on the Greek islands as a deterrent.

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