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A Chair For Two

Have you heard of “#SofaGate”?

In this article, we will see together what “Sofagate” is and, most importantly, analyze its potential meaning and consequences for the EU-Turkey relations, which have been tense for years, especially because of the migration crisis and the recent Turkey’s drive for gas in the Eastern Mediterranean.

What is "SofaGate"

Last Tuesday, the 6th of April, a meeting between the President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of the European Council Charles Michel, and the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen took place at the presidential palace in Ankara, Turkey.

This meeting was the result of a “meticulous preparation and diplomatic effort” (as said by Mr. Michel himself) and meant to ease the relations between Turkey and the European Union for future cooperation between the two.

In the room where the meeting was supposed to take place, right before its beginning, this scenario was presented to its honorable participants: two chairs and three of them, and this is not the start of a joke.

At this point, one of the infamous chairs, the one in front of the Turkish flag, was of course occupied by the Turkish President Mr. Erdogan and the other one in front of the European Union flag was left for either two of the others. The European Council President Mr. Michel, quite abruptly, took it, leaving a clearly surprised and embarrassed European Commission President Mrs. von der Leyen standing without a chair close to them. To not make a scene over the form and concentrate on the substance, Mrs. von der Leyen, with an “Ehm” and a slight gesture with her arms, which contained all her astonishment in this situation, had to take a seat on a nearby sofa in front of another where the Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister was sitting, thus resulting sidelined with respect to Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Michel.

A video of the whole scene was made and it soon became viral online, raising questions and criticism against Turkey’s treatment of the European Commission President Mrs. von der Leyen and against the European Council President Mr. Michel, who apparently took the infamous seat without giving a lot of thought. The hashtags “#GiveHerASeat” and “#SofaGate” then emerged on the internet.

After the event, the European Commission played down what happened and the Commission spokesperson, Mr. Eric Mamer, just declared that the Commission President von der Leyen expects the institution which she represents to be treated by all with the required and appropriate protocol to avoid in the future situations as the one described above.

But Turkey has now laid the blame on the EU for “unjust accusations” and the Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Cavusoglu declared that the protocol actually met the demands of the EU side.

However, Mr. Michel said he was saddened by any suggestion that he may have been indifferent to the protocol misstep against Mrs. Von der Leyen.

Unnecessary scandal, human mistake or meaningful gesture?

Now, having read what happened, you may wonder if this was such a big deal as some think it was or not.

Is it an unnecessary scandal while the protocol was indeed followed? Or a banal missing chair due to a human mistake? Or is it a meaningful gesture by Turkey against EU institutions and women’s rights directed to the Union and the whole world?

I leave you the liberty of choosing your own answer but it is important to notice that, considering the protocol for this kind of meetings, last year the High Representative of the European Union Mr. Borrell did found his chair in Ankara and when the Turkish leader visited Brussels in 2017, the then European Council and Commission Presidents, Mr. Tusk and Mr. Juncker, both men, both took a seat beside him in comfy armchairs. So, it appears that in the present Ankara case the protocol was not the one usually followed.

From left to right: Mr Recep Tayyip ERDOGAN, Turkish President; Mr Donald TUSK, President of the European Council; Mr Jean-Claude JUNCKER, President of the European Commission. Bruxelles, Belgium - 25/05/2017

Source: “Leaders' meeting with President Erdogan” by European Council

However, the etiquette can sometimes admit that the European Commission President has to take a side seat with respect to the European Council President, whose position thus results hierarchically higher, as said by Mr. Juncker, former President of the European Commission. But, in general, and especially in this case, this sitting arrangement can show disunity among the EU institutions and a gender inequality example which were better to be avoided in such a delicate situation as the EU-Turkey relations appeasement.

Moreover, European Council and Commission Presidents are both usually treated as heads of State since the EU has two leaders and not only one unlike every country in the world and the main international organizations like the UN, NATO, the WTO, and so on. But in this episode the European Commission President Mrs. von der Leyen evidently resulted sidelined with respect to the Turkish President Mr. Erdogan and the European Council President Mr. Michel, both at the institutional level and considering the gender of the parties involved. And it is this latter aspect which makes rise most of the noise out of this situation since the cases of discrimination and violence against women in Turkey and the recent highly protested exit of Turkey from the Istanbul Convention of 2011 for the protection of women against violence, which actually was one of the topics of discussion between the Turkish President Mr. Erdogan and the representatives of the European Union and which makes therefore the timing of this episode even worse.

It may be the case that Turkey indeed followed the protocol case mentioned by Mr. Juncker and that the bad reputation of Mr. Erdogan produced the scandal, while it is less likely a human mistake in such a strategic meeting for both parties. However, Sofagate may also be a meaningful gesture by Turkey against EU institutions and women’s rights directed to the Union and the whole world, even if it would have been highly risky for Turkey’s own interests of cooperation with the EU, which is actually needed by both sides to deal among else with the Syrian situation.

The Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld complained that the missing chair was actually a deliberate and meaningful gesture by Turkey to question the equal treatment of Mrs. Von der Leyen that was, maybe not by chance, the only woman in the room.

For sure neither Turkey’s President nor the European Council President came out of this episode looking all that good and we must remember that this kind of perceptions counts offering clues about power, respect, and relationships, especially in the highly digital era we are living in, in which social media permit the general public to enter in acquaintance with and form an opinion on facts concerning the elites even if happened behind closed doors.

EU-Turkey relations focus

The meeting in which the Sofagate took place and which was resulted, at least partially, overshadowed by the episode was indeed of great importance for the EU-Turkey relations. In fact, the meeting was meant to ease the relations between the Union and Turkey, especially after Turkey limited civil rights, breached international waters near Cipro and Greece in its drive for gas in the Eastern Mediterranean with illegal drilling activities and opened its borders permitting migrants to reach the EU.

Blue: areas claimed by Greece and Cyprus in line with the UNCLOS; red: areas claimed by Turkey.

Source: ”Eastern Mediterranean EEZ conflicts” by “By Future Perfect at Sunrise” is licensed under CC0

The European Council and Commission Presidents were in Ankara to bring the message discussed during the EU Council meeting of the 25th-26th of March 2021, declaring that the EU-Turkey relations and cooperation highly depend on the ones between Greece and Turkey upon the Mediterranean situation and the Turkish illegal drilling activities. Moreover, concerning migration fluxes, the EU wants to proceed with the 2016 solution with Turkey as gatekeeper for Syrian migrants, but in this regard the Turkish President Mr. Erdogan pushed for a financing mechanism for billions similar to the previous years one, accusing the Union of not having entirely complied with the 2016 agreement, thus asking for a revision of the latter.

Considering all this, an attempt to repair the tense relations between Turkey and EU turned into a diplomatic spat and gender inequality case remembered as “Sofagate”.

Cover Picture: “President Michel visits Turkey” by European Council

From left to right: Ms Ursula VON DER LEYEN, President of the European Commission; Mr Charles MICHEL, President of the European Council; Mr Recep Tayyip ERDOGAN, Turkish President. Ankara, Turkey - 06/04/2021


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