Talk of the town in Europe and beyond last week was how the European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is seated-or rather not seated during her visit to the Presidential Palace in Ankara. Any other international relations topic, let alone anything else related to the EU-Turkey relations would hardly last that long as an item.
The EU Council President Charles Michel’s “sorry my bad” statement was telling the German paper Handelsblatt that he “could not sleep at night”, and adding that if he could back in time, he would fix it. In his earlier statements Michel seemed to be sleeping simply fine, as he blamed the incident to "the strict interpretation of the protocol rules by the Turkish services.” Der Spiegel’s Markus Becker argued that the Sofagate reflected a power struggle between von der Leyen and Michel, and institutionally the Commission and the Council.
The subject is far from settled: The two largest groups in the European Parliament have called for a plenary debate over the issue. The conservative European People’s Party (EPP) and the Social Democrats demanded on that von der Leyen and EU Council President Charles Michel be invited to parliament at the end of April.
First, looking from an objective angle, the main culprit of the “Sofagate” is the EU representatives in Turkey. Despite other faults and spites, this time Ankara side was just doing what they perceived to be right: the Turkish Presidency’s protocol took the European Council President Charles Michel to be the diplomatically superior. In previous meetings with von der Leyen and Michel in Brussels; Erdoğan faced the EU Council President and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu sat across the EU Commission President at rectangular table seating. The EU parties in charge of protocol based in Ankara missed the point, and symbolism that would be born out of such a prima facie sexist looking seating arrangement.
The EU protocol organizing parties in Brussels negate any responsibility, citing that delegated the task solely to the EU Delegation in Ankara due to COVID 19 Pandemic precautions. In other words, there was limited EU personnel travelling to Ankara; and hence, they could not have intervened to the meeting’s organization. However, despite all “inside info” shared by the EU officials, let us also be reminded that Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu added spice to the debate by stating that Turkey was simply complying with the instructions of a planning delegation sent by Brussels.
One outcome of the seating saga may be recognition of von der Leyen and Michel as “co-Presidents of the EU” at an equal footing. That may also set an institution precent for the EU that the Council and Commission are treated as partners on a par. Currently, the Council is de facto the “brain”, setting political agenda and pathway, while the Commission is the “heart” carrying out the political tasks as the “executive”-hence, the Council is conceptually one step up. If Turkey’s “contribution” to the EU history in this regard takes concrete form, then the Council and Commission would formally become equals and that would institutional repercussions.
In any case, under “normal” circumstances, how von der Leyen is sidelined in seating would have been criticized and would cause jokes, but not ruffle so many feathers. Nevertheless, despite all intents and purposes, the EU-Turkey relations are anything but normal. The “positive agenda” that has been raved and chanted about since October 2020 turned out to be old wine in new bottles. As “wine” analogy may not be kosher in this instance, we may say “old ayran” which is bound to have even a lesser shelf life. It is simply unignorable that Turkey withdrew from a fundamental international and primarily European treaty, the Istanbul Convention which seeks to promote gender rights and curtail domestic violence against women barely weeks ago.
The Migrant and the Customs Union updates, or rather “2.0 versions” of them are just due and just business as usual. The fact that von der Leyen hopped off to Amman after Turkey to primarily discuss the situation of Syrians there and the new migrant deal with Jordan is indicative enough of how the EU viewed the Ankara meeting: first leg of a tour to kick off the new migrant deals. Prior to von der Leyen’s visit, it was officially announced that the European Commission is working on a new proposal on financing Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The EU Commission President herself said that she is “very much committed to ensuring the continuity of European funding in this area.” If anyone is curious, Jordan’s King Abdullah and von der Leyen sat tête-à-tête at the Amman meeting.
Between Turkey and the EU, it is just a question of “how much” and a bit of “how”s regarding the conclusion of the new Migrant Deal. But there is also the negative agenda looming over the horizon. On April 14, Greek Foreign Minister Nikolas Dendias is visiting Ankara, and presumably he will find swanky chairs waiting for him there. Even if Dendias’ Ankara seating may be posh, the deals waiting for him there may not be as sweet. Despite the fact Ankara is recalibrating its foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean, it is question mark whether the spring blossoms of détente will be lasting. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry received an early Ramadan greeting from his Turkish counterpart Çavuşoğlu last week; first of the official high level direct exchanges since the breakdown of relations since 2013. Love is also in the air with Israel; Turkey informed Israel last week that it is ready to dispatch an ambassador after a break of almost three years if both simultaneously do so. A major stress test for EastMed power play reconfigurations would be the Geneva 5+1 talks regarding the Cyprus Question to be initiated by the United Nations on April 27-29. A two-state solution endorsement might be on the way-but if that does not work, then the EU-Turkey relations may really become unseated.
One positive outcome of the seating scandal may be the European Commission’s “sharpened focus” on women's rights. Coincidentally, right on the 10th anniversary of the Istanbul Convention, on April 7, the EU Commission’s spokesperson Eric Manner said that “the incident” had "sharpened” von der Leyen’s focus on the issue. A good scare is worth more than good advice.