Ankara quickly drew the curtain on the “case of the missing chair,” the incident that left Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission, standing while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President of the EU Council Charles Michel took the only two seats available. Von der Leyen had no choice but to retreat to a nearby couch. That awkward moment will not be easily swept under the carpet in Europe where an investigation will be conducted with protocol authorities in Brussels to find out about what some European media outlets have termed “sofagate.”
Here, in Istanbul, the press has covered the incident rather perfunctorily, although one sensed a certain bafflement at Michel’s reaction. “I make no secret of the fact that I haven’t slept well at night since then,” he told German newspaper Handelsblatt. “If it were possible to turn the clock back, I’d try to fix it.” Member of European Parliament (MEP) from the liberal Renew Europe group Sophie in ‘t Veld tweeted pictures showing previous EU Commission and EU Council presidents (both male) sitting side-by-side on an equal footing with Erdogan. “And no, it wasn’t a coincidence, it was deliberate. Why was the EU Council president silent?” she asked. Michel responded, “my fear was that if I had reacted in any way, I would trigger a much more serious incident.”
Turkey denied responsibility for the protocol gaffe. But that did not wash with anti-Erdogan quarters in Europe, especially those incensed at the misogynistic direction his government is taking. MEP Iratxe Garcia Pérez, leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats parliamentary group, felt the insult against the first female EU Commission president was deliberate: “First they withdraw from the Istanbul Convention and now they leave the president of European Commission without a seat in an official visit. Shameful.”
Her colleague, MEP Sergey Lagodinsky (member of the Alliance 90/ The Greens), referred to von der Leyen appearing to say “ahem,” or “ehm”: “‘Ehm’ is the new term for ‘that’s not how EU-Turkey relationship should be.’”
Politico concluded that, ultimately, the EU lost in the battle of the absent chair. It emerged divided, “which was exactly what Erdogan wanted.” If, indeed, the absence of a third chair was an Erdogan set-up – not unlikely as he is known to like to play Europeans off against each other – the two EU presidents fell into his trap. The high-level EU delegation was in Ankara to discuss a range of vital issues, only for the meeting to “be overshadowed by the embarrassing incident, which instantly poked at a number of hot-button issues: everything from sexism to the EU’s role as a power politics player to the long-running confusion over who really speaks for the EU.” The article could not help but to remark on “the irony of the EU’s highest-ranking female leader being sidelined on a trip arranged, in part, to pressure Turkey on supporting women’s rights.”
Yet, to the amazement of Erdogan’s European critics, Turkey was not to blame for the gaffe. According to his foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, the seating arrangements were made according to the suggestions of the Europeans. “Our protocol units came together beforehand and their demands were realised,” he said.
Moreover, some European newspapers held that the incident supported Erdogan’s previous assertions attributing the deterioration in Turkish-EU relations to the whims of certain EU members and the problems they fabricate. The l’Opinion argued that, on this occasion, the reality was quite different to the picture painted by media circles hostile to Erdogan. “The Turks, who had every interest in advertising their rapprochement with the EU, which they have been seeking for several months, are only the collateral victims of the petty quarrels in Brussels.” The French newspaper explained that von der Leyen and Michel were “at daggers drawn” in a kind of turf war while “the Turks stood by and watched.”
This brings us back to the point that the media furore over the incident did in fact overshadow a productive meeting, to the extent that some observers saw the glimmer of a thaw in EU-Turkish relations. Reeling from a succession of policy debacles abroad and economic straits at home, aggravated by the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, Turkey has been praying for this ease-up. Some months ago, Ankara shifted tack in foreign policy strategy, departing from the aggressive approach that led to an unprecedented level of international isolation and disastrous rebounds on an already deteriorating economy.
Because the EU is Turkey’s most important export and import partner, Ankara has been desperate to repair its frayed relations there. Its efforts appear to have paid off. According to official statements from both Ankara and Brussels, Turkey and the EU share the desire to overcome longstanding problems, search for common ground and promote mutual interests. The talks in Ankara on 6 April reflected this spirit and focused on areas that would support the “positive agenda” for bilateral relations. Both sides envision closer cooperation that will lead to the renewal of the immigration and customs union agreements, exempting Turkish citizens from the European visa requirement and other matters. In keeping with this spirit, Erdogan urged European officials to take concrete steps towards reactivating Turkish EU membership talks.
Von der Leyen reciprocated with positive signals. “Indeed, Turkey shows interest in re-engaging with the European Union in a constructive way,” she said in a statement after the meeting in Ankara. “We have come to Turkey to give our relationship a new momentum. And in this respect, we had an interesting first meeting with President Erdoğan. And indeed, we discussed four areas in depth, in which the European Union and Turkey would both benefit from enhanced cooperation.” In addition to trade, upgrading the customs union, refugees and migration, she looked forward to boosting “private and public cooperation” to stimulate trade and “high level dialogues” to promote “enhanced cooperation” on such issues as climate change and fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.
Michel was also upbeat. “We have told President Erdogan that the EU is ready to put a concrete and positive agenda on the table, based on three pillars: economic cooperation, migration and people-to-people contacts and mobility. Our engagement will be progressive, proportional and reversible. And we hope Turkey will seize this window of opportunity.” How would this work concretely?
As the EU was “by far the largest trading partner of Turkey,” he foresaw closer economic cooperation in various areas. He also envisioned “high-level dialogues on issues of mutual concern, such as regional issues, public health, climate and counter terrorism.” On migration, he said: “We appreciate Turkey’s hosting of 4 million Syrian refugees and agree that EU assistance be continued.” Like van der Leyen, he drew attention to the positive developments in Ankara’s relations with Brussels in recent months.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly