Neither Turkey nor the European Union are responsible for the odd relationship between chairs and diplomacy. “Soooo tell us about the empty-chair policy?” is one of the most frequent questions asked to rookies who want to enter one of the Union’s many institutions. The answer from EU 101 is, of course, when Charles de Gaulle, the charismatic French president, boycotted European institutions due to issues he had regarding new political proposals from the European Commission, including steps toward a common agricultural policy, in 1965.
Since then, however, the European Union has not seen only a few empty chairs. In 2000, when Austrian ultra-right politician Joerg Haider’s Freedom Party became part of the country’s government, the EU took a series of measures, including not inviting Freedom Party ministers to EU meetings, thus leaving Austria’s chair empty. In June 2018, the European Commission has pulled a no-chair snub to “bad boys with anti-immigration views”: It left out Visegrad Four - Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia - in a migration mini-summit scheduled a week ahead of the actual European Council. The countries have announced that they were boycotting a mini-summit to which they had not been invited. Austria, though invited, joined the boycott and the 28 eventually met as 16.
On the other hand, Turkey’s most famous “sofa snub” came in its relations with Israel in 2010. At a time when relations were at the snarling stage, Israel's then Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon summoned Turkish Ambassador Ahmet Oğuz Çelikkol to criticize a Turkish television drama depicting Israeli security forces as kidnapping children and shooting old men and sat him on a sofa lower than his chair. To make sure that the gesture would not be lost on anyone, Ayalon told cameramen that the seating was not coincidental. An Israeli newspaper, which clearly got the message, came up with the headline “Height of humiliation.”
For many of us mere mortals, the height of the chair is as surreal as Yul Bryner, who played the king of Siam in the musical “The King and I,” screaming to poor Anna that no one’s head should be higher than that of the king. But in the delicate world of diplomacy, where you stand does depend on where you sit - on the right or left, on the couch or one of the gilded chairs. No wonder all diplomats I know who had had a long career in the protocol have either developed an ulcer or a devil-may-care recklessness from too many brushes with disaster.
So, yes, it is not surprising that there is an uproar over the recent footage of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s (acronym UvdL) looking around for a seat and eventually settling in a lower sofa while the other two presidents, European Council President Charles Michel and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, settle on their high chairs. Part of the credit goes to the tweet of Sergey Lagodinsky, the German Green MEP and the chair of Delegation to the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee who coined the term “ehm” moment in Turco-EU ties: “Ehm’ is the new term for ‘that’s not how the EU-Turkey relationship should be.” Hopefully, he’ll find equally apt ways to get people’s attention on other issues in the European Parliament’s agenda, such as the EU4Health program.
For the past 48 hours, the question of just who left UvdL dangling became the source of endless speculation, jokes, accusations of gender discrimination, analysis on power-sharing in the European Union institutions and lessons in the protocol. My favourite memes are those that show an IKEA fold chair called ERDOĞAN and one that portrays three kids playing musical chairs, with the caption “Michel says he thought they were playing musical chairs.”
The first temptation, both on social media and in articles, was to pin UvdL’s “Ehm” moment to the big bad Turkish president who has shown his contempt for women by his overnight move to ditch the Istanbul Convention, the major anti-gender violence accord. The early headlines and tweets have made Erdoğan the scapegoat, or the “tête de Turc”, as the Walloon politician Michel would doubtlessly say. These headlines have a major failing: One can find - even without much trying - many faults in the Turkish president’s policy toward women but even the most critical diplomatic correspondent would be hard-pressed to pinpoint instances that he has snubbed his female counterparts or showed more respect or a preference toward his male counterparts. Offending von der Leyen, particularly when Ankara had requested the representation of the Commission both due to its role in the customs union and due to Ankara’s eagerness for a family photo with both commission and the council, would have been out of character.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu denied, in certain terms, that the “ehm” moment was Turkey’s fault. “The seating arrangements were made in line with the EU suggestion,” he said, throwing the ball at the European Council’s court and feeding rumours that the entire problem was caused by Charles Michel’s desire to step into the foreign policy forefront and show himself as Charles-in-Charge, as the 1980s sitcom goes.
Michel, for his part, denied that he had been indifferent to the seating arrangements that left UvdL. In a late-night statement, he said that “some of the images that have been transmitted” have given the impression that he may have been insensitive to this situation. “Nothing is further from reality or from my profound feelings,” he added. To a chance watcher, he does seem unconcerned, as he trots rapidly to his chair, makes himself comfortable and hardly glances at his colleague in distress, much less offer her his seat. He would have further explaining to do in the European Parliament and possibly extend on the silly paragraph on his statement on how he likes working with women.
Michel’s statement also indicated that while he was sad, he was not sorry. “The strict interpretation by the Turkish services of protocol rules” had “produced a distressing situation — different, even diminished, treatment of the president of the European Commission.”
The president of the commission herself kept quiet, but her spokesman, Eric Mamer said UvdL has asked her team to take “all appropriate contacts” in order to ensure that such an incident does not occur in the future.
Putting aside the details on which side said what or what was understood/misunderstood in the talks before the visit; the ensuing picture is that of two men sitting together and neither of them batting an eyelid as the (female) person of equal rank does not have a chair. Would it have been the same if UvdL had been a man? Her predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker (a politician Erdoğan felt close to since the 2000s) said that sometimes he too had to sit on a sofa, as photos show, that was not the case with Erdoğan.
Brussels insider Politico Playbook gave three pieces of advice on the photo that erupted:) Putting Von der Leyen on par with the Turkish Foreign Minister, who was sitting opposite her on another sofa, can only be perceived as an affront. 2) It may be confusing, but before settling on your seating plan, check who is a president by rank and who is a president who can get you an upgrade on the customs union. 3) If you invite two presidents, make sure you have three chairs.
I would offer a fourth: It is a tough task speaking out when you face (gender) discrimination - even if you are Ursula von der Leyen.