That would make a good modern art installation or an arthouse movie title. Such a potent image that was, the only lady in the room left idly standing for a long moment while the two male principals throw themselves back comfortably at their chairs. All hell broke loose afterwards, questioning the background of the event, the behaviour of the two gentlemen, separately and from different angles, and praising the courtesy and sang-froid of Ms. von der Leyen.
One cannot make sense of history, or so it is taught at school, with “could have been”s or “should have been”s. EU Council President Michel could have left his seat to EU Commission President von der Leyen. The visiting EU protocol team should have checked meticulously beforehand all the arrangements. “Assumption is the mother of all major f-ups” I had heard the U.S. military repeat as a mantra while serving in Baghdad.
What is more, who would expect the old fashion diplomacy to make such a comeback with a vengeance? Who would guess that even the outmoded word “protocol” would gain such a central importance in international relations in our modern times? Yet, they did. The EU protocol team, along with the EU delegation in Ankara apparently slept at the wheel.
The mishap also exposed once again the utter obsolescence of the behemoth of the EU bureaucracy. The best jobs are the ones where incumbents are handsomely paid without being kept accountable for such faux-pas. For, there is always tomorrow. There will always be other visits to bungle and to laugh them on with a mere shrug later. Due diligence, anyone?
Many connected the dots, in vain in my humble opinion, between President Erdoğan’s suggested personal snub towards von der Leyen “as a woman” and his decision to abruptly pull Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention*. That doesn’t quite make it either. To tend such a “sexist” trap to Von der Leyen wouldn’t quite make it for Erdoğan. Besides which, as Ariane Bonzon eloquently explains here, the same Erdoğan never shies away from showing that he keeps German Chancellor Merkel (et al.) in high esteem.
From a strict point of protocol view, when a head of state receiving another number one or the equivalent of it, as here is the case with Mr. Michel, it is only natural that the rest of the visiting team is relegated to secondary positions. Furthermore, it is the EU protocol itself that dictates the order of precedence: Head of EU parliament (here absent), President of the EU Council, rotating EU president (Portugal – again here absent) and the head of the executive body, that is, head of EU Commission.
The photos of a previous visit with Mr. Tusk and Mr. Juncker stands as testimony to the fact the Turkish presidency is well aware of that. Three chairs are placed for the three gentlemen in those images. That correct seating arrangement tells us that Ankara is not in the game of playing the council against the commission either.
Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zakharova did not miss the opportunity with her usual wit to bash not the EU as an institution but the union of Europe as a concept. She indicates that the incident does not represent a rift between the Council and the Commission as there was no unity whatsoever to talk of anyway.
Zakharova’s line is reminiscent of Minister Lavrov’s himself. He had made it clear at the time that Russia may have problems with the EU but not with Europe thus taking the size of Brussels. High Representative Borrell’s visit to Moscow was not less disastrous than Michel-von der Leyen’s Ankara venture. It is also the same Mr. Borrell who lost his temper while being interviewed with a French TV channel prior to the EU duo’s Ankara visit: “If you are ready to receive 4 million Syrian refugees, then I am ready to change my Turkey policy” –perhaps, altruism is a virtue...
Ergo, as Mr. Michel tells Handeslblatt, it is not without a reason that he can’t sleep well at night. Forget old-fashioned protocol but even the old-fashioned courtesy and diplomatic finesse or just plain common sense would urge Michel to either yield to Von der Leyen or, even better, to take a place on the infamous sofa leaving the chair (eerily?) vacant.
He did neither, so now lacks sleep, we are asked to believe. Yet, when we delve into further “evidence”, we are met with other contradictory visual material. We see Michel arriving on his own first to the presidential palace and chummily meeting Erdoğan up the stairs. The arrival of von der Leyen few moments later couldn’t have been more tellingly different. Or perhaps, even the staging of the separate arrival speaks for itself.
Probably, Italy’s PM Draghi too will now miss a few nights of sleep once he huddles up with his Foreign Minister Di Maio. His hasty “dictator” comments about Erdoğan are just another round of sawed-off shotgun fired at the ceiling. Draghi’s expression “…these dictators, let’s call them what they are – who however are needed…” is a diplomatic contradiction: If business needs to be taken care of with those “dictators”, then one should readily admit that calling them as such won’t do.
EU duo’s visit’s timing too was a display of poor judgment. The unplanned “sofagate” episode only exposed the short-comings of a “bicephalous supra-state organisation”. The EU is in urgent need of a GPS device and of some serious auditing. Turkey file may as well be a good starting point.
At the end of the day, whichever way you wish to cut it, we can now safely and once again assume that “the loser is…” (drum roll), and yes you guessed it right: Turkey. The “sofagate” episode is more about political short-sightedness of the EU than the barbarian (!) Turks’ sudden amnesia of protocol. Just a short time ago it was the EU Parliament standing rapporteur for Turkey Nacho Sanchez Amor himself who had questioned whether “Brussels” now willingly relinquished policymaking to Paris and Berlin when it comes to deal with Ankara.
The so-called “firm transactionalism” or “carrots and sticks” policy is like forcefully trying baby clothes on a fully grown up child. If “rebis sic stantibus” is one legal principle, then “pacta sund servanda” is another. In other words, if one willingly tends to forget the candidate status of Turkey, then one can happily ignore human rights, freedom of expression, rule of law, in short altogether democracy in Turkey. The loop-sided “positive agenda” is about paying Ankara to host Syrian refugees, and at some point, context permitting, take up the customs union and the visa waiver issues -only.
In mid-term Chancellor Merkel will retire from politics. Based on current polls, there is an increasing possibility that a left coalition will be in power in Germany by the end of 2021. In 2022, President Macron will be competing to keep his seat against Marine le Pen in France. Neither does augur well for Turkey’s EU candidacy. Erdoğan managed well to drive a wedge between France and Germany till today. That gap may be closing on its own by year’s end.
One can only conjure up “hail Mary passes” of sorts as potential diplomatic enterprises. On the 27th of April, a new round of Cyprus talks will be held in Geneva. That can be made of use by Ankara as the obvious kick-starter. On the other hand, as Le Pen is not a particularly Turkey friendly option, Paris and Ankara may be forced to remember their common points in history as in secularism and in geography as in the Mediterranean. I wouldn’t bet on any of these to be honest though.
As legend would have it, the original Saint Ursula was fatally shot with an arrow and martyred by the Huns during the siege of Cologne in about 383 AD. My late father’s name was Attilâ -as the Hun. He was quite the gentleman with women. He had warned me that if it so happened one day in the future that I was seated without my business jacket and a female guest arrives, I should first promptly jump on my feet to put it back on before kindly welcoming the lady.
The Huns’ arrival in Europe can today be interpreted as a re-invigorating historic event or a catastrophe, depending on the angle you look at it. Perhaps my hometown İstanbul’s motto of “where the east meets the west” can turn out to be a rallying call for reformers and visionaries in Brussels. And perhaps, the stars may just be aligning to show Erdoğan or his potential successor that the only way to go is still full EU membership.
* The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence signed in Istanbul in 2011.