‘Sofagate’: Why does Europe even have two presidents?

The incident was over in seconds but was enough to send the Brussels political bubble into a tailspin, raising questions about sexism in the hallways of power and shining a light on the EU’s Byzantine leadership that even US presidents call confusing.

Here are five things to know about “Sofagate”, a new chapter in the fraught relations between the European Union and Turkey, and a telling moment for the European project.

– What actually happened? –

It is all centred on an awkward moment at the start of talks between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Tuesday. 

While watching the two male leaders sit comfortably face-to-face in a pair of armchairs before their flags, an annoyed von der Leyen lets out an audible “umm…” while looking for own chair before being ushered to a nearby sofa.

The moment quickly went viral after official footage of the encounter was released and gained international attention.

– Did Erdogan trap the EU? –

The apparently sexist breach of diplomatic protocol generated a wave of criticism against Erdogan, who just weeks before had pulled Turkey out of the Istanbul convention on combating gender-based violence.

France’s Europe minister Clement Beaune alleged that the incident was “orchestrated” by “interlocutors who know the value of symbols”.

Former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb called the scene “pathetic, sad really” and that “musical chairs” was “the favourite game of autocrats… combined with bullying and insulting.”

But the Turkish government vehemently denied any intended offence, saying the seating arrangements were made “in line with the EU suggestion. Period”.

While the truth may well never be known, Michel blamed the snafu on the “strict interpretation by the Turkish services of protocol rules”. 

If it emerges that Michel’s team prepared the meeting, maybe they wanted show that the “council is there to define the big lines, and the commission to take care of the execution”, suggested Eric Maurice of the Schuman Foundation.

– Turkey-EU: It’s complicated –

Ties between Erdogan and the EU were already difficult.

Positions in European capitals vary between those that want to be tough with what they see as an increasingly autocratic Erdogan and others pushing a more conciliatory line because of Turkey’s role in stopping migrants from getting to the continent.

In the end, the complicated job of delivering Europe’s contradictory position to Ankara is left to the EU leaders, making meetings with the unpredictable Erdogan a diplomatic high wire act.  

– Why does the EU have two presidents? –

If the European Union were more simply constructed, it would only have one leader and SofaGate would have never happened.

But the EU has two leaders. 

Von der Leyen is the president of the European Commission, which is the bloc’s executive arm. It enforces rules and drafts the EU laws that are then put for approval by the member states and European Parliament.

But, since 2009, the EU also has a European Council president, the role held by Michel, whose job is to coordinate the meetings of EU national leaders who make major decisions and set the direction for policy, guiding the commission.

In strict protocol terms, Michel’s job is more senior than von der Leyen’s, but in reality the two are joined at the hip during international meetings, sometimes to the confusion of outsiders.  

“The European Union, the European Commission, the European Council … sometimes I get them mixed up,” then US president Barack Obama said at a G7 summit in 2014.

“Welcome to the club!” quipped British Prime Minister David Cameron, standing beside him.

– Was Michel sexist?-

Many observers complained that Michel should have refused to take his seat until the couch problem was resolved and that his blank look as he sank into his chair betrayed a latent disregard for his female colleague.

“Why did Michel sit down? Why couldn’t he … look at von der Leyen and show solidarity,” tweeted Belgian MEP Assita Kanko.

Sinem Adar, a Turkey expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said the EU should have seen this diplomatic trick coming “and of course, Michel playing along adds insult to injury.”

Michel, a former Belgian prime minister, insisted such interpretations “couldn’t be further from the truth” and defended his track record on gender issues, including his support for a woman as his successor to lead Belgium.  

Others say that the incident has blown open the tensions pervading the EU tandem, with rumours rife in Brussels that Michel and von der Leyen do not get along. 

But the same was said about the preceding duos Juncker and Donald Tusk, as well as Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy.

by Alex PIGMAN