Issue 275: 2021 04 15: Sofagate

15 April 2021


Three presidents, two chairs.

By Neil Tidmarsh

A game and a spat worthy of a kid’s birthday party gone sour.  Poor Ursula von der Leyen.  The president of the EU Commission didn’t stand a chance in this bout of musical chairs sprung upon her in Ankara.  Her two competitors – president of the EU Council Charles Michel and President Erdogan of Turkey – were taller and leggier and faster moving and seemed to have a better idea of what was going on.  They left Ms von der Leyen standing, literally.  She could only gasp incoherently and gesture with disbelief and annoyance before settling down on the sofa away from the two flags and the two big men, opposite Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, in the second rank.

“The President of the Commission was clearly surprised” her spokesman Eric Mamer admitted afterwards with the understatement of a true bureaucrat – cold fury was evident in Ms von der Leyen’s expression even before the masks came off in that room.  “The president expects the institution that she represents to be treated with the required protocol and she has therefore asked her team to ensure that such an incident does not occur in the future.”

This EU / Turkey summit was supposed to put these two powers back on friendlier terms after their serious disagreements of recent years.  So what happened?  Why did it happen?

Did President Erdogan deliberately humiliate the EU?  Was it punishment for all the criticism and condemnation the EU has sent his way in recent years about migrants, refugees, human rights abuses, the erosion of democracy, clashes with Greece over the undersea resources of the eastern Mediterranean, etc, etc?  Many in Europe thought so; Italian prime minister Mario Draghi was outspoken about his “displeasure” at this deliberate “humiliation” of the EU by a “ dictator”.  (Erdogan, Turkey’s democratically elected president, might have been amused by the irony of being called a dictator by Draghi, an unelected technocrat.)

Was it a sexist snub?  Was Ms von der Lyon deliberately targeted because she was a woman?  After all, chairs were put out for both the President of the EU Council and the President of the EU Commission when they met President Erdogan in Istanbul in 2015 – and both were men.  And a sensitive item on the agenda for last week’s meeting was Turkey’s recent withdrawal from its own 2011 Istanbul Convention on violence against women; the EU had already criticised Erdogan about it and he must have known that Ms von der Leyen – the first female president of the Commission – would open it up into a more general debate about women’s rights.  Many MEPs believed that the embarrassment was indeed gender-based and rallied to #GiveHerASeat.  Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld tweeted “It wasn’t a coincidence it was deliberate”.  Spanish MEP Iratxe Garcia Perez said “First they withdraw from the Istanbul convention and now they leave the president of the European commission without a seat in an official visit.  Shameful.”  Former EU commissioner Violeta Bulk said “What a diplomatic fiasco.”

Or was there another explanation, one which had little to do with Erdogan or Turkey?

Turkey insisted that it did in fact obey the rules of political etiquette, that it followed the accepted protocols absolutely correctly.  Indeed, EU Council President Charles (Are you sitting comfortably? I am) Michel seemed to think this was the problem; rather confusingly, he blamed this “regrettable” incident on the “Turkish authorities strict interpretation of protocol rules”.  The confusion increased when the Turkish authorities countered by blaming the EU; they insisted that they had consulted with the EU about the matter before the meeting.  “The protocol at the presidency met the demands of the EU side” said Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut (What’s wrong with a sofa anyway?) Cavusoglu.  “In other words, the seating arrangement was designed to meet their demands and suggestions.”

And so far the EU hasn’t contradicted him, which lends credibility to his words.  So it’s beginning to look as if the whole episode – that undignified and embarrassing scramble for seats – might in fact be explained by in-fighting within the EU.

France 24 correspondent Dave Keating has pointed out that the only EU protocol team present in Ankara was the EU Council’s, ie Charles Michel’s team; the EU Commission’s protocol team – Ursula von der Lyon’s team – was absent because of Covid-19 restrictions.  That and Mr Cavusoglu’s explanation suggests that Charles Michel’s own team told the Turkish authorities to put out only two chairs; one for its boss, one for their boss – and none for Ursula von der Leyen!  Could it be that Charles Michel is guilty of something more than simply failing to chivalrously surrender his seat to a lady?

The fact that the EU appears to have two presidents is known to cause confusion outside Europe and friction within.  The position of president of the Council was created in 2009 with the intention of eventually replacing the president of the Commission when it came to representing the EU on the world stage.  That hasn’t happened yet.  Jean-Claude Juncker – the previous president of the Commission – even suggested, on his departure, that the two presidencies should be merged.  So it’s hardly surprising if some kind of power-struggle is going on within the EU between these two presidents.

Two things do remain surprising, however.  The first is that, in an organisation which presents itself as a strict rules-based institution, the rules of protocol regarding the status and relationship between the two presidents remain so vague and messy and undefined.  Nobody seems to be able to point to anything constitutionally definitive about whether there should have been chairs for one or for both of them in Ankara.  The second is that, in an organisation which presents itself as a model of democracy, there should be any suggestion that the president of the Commission, who is an unelected representative of unelected functionaries, should have equal billing with the president of the Council, who is the elected representative of the elected heads of the member states.  Ursula von der Leyen is a functionary, a civil servant, appointed by elected MEPs and elected national leaders to serve them.  That position on that sofa was her proper place; there should indeed have been only two chairs in that room – one for each of the only elected leaders present.

This was the fourth humiliation for the EU on the world stage in as many months, following the vaccine procurement fiasco, the disastrous visit to Moscow by EU Commissioner Josep Borrell, and China’s massive retaliation to the Commission’s sanctioning of four Chinese officials (for their involvement in the persecution of Uighur Muslims) while expecting a trade deal at the same time.  All four humiliations could be blamed on the EU Commission’s hubris.  Further humiliations will inevitably occur unless the EU parliament and the EU Council take proper steps to remind the Commission that it is not the EU’s government  (perhaps Charles Michel, sensing that this was his moment, thought he was doing precisely that; if so, it was an unfortunate attempt which simply embarrassed the whole of the EU).  Already looking dysfunctional, the EU is in danger of becoming an international laughing stock.



Tile photo:  European Union 2019 – source: EP (Creative Commons).

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