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The sofa strategy. Of power and brutality

(B2) The relegation of Ursula von der Leyen to a sofa during her visit to Ankara to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while Charles Michel was entitled to an armchair, is causing discussion. Comments are pouring out, often irrational. Let's try to see it clearly...

Charles Michel, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the chairs – Ursula von der Leyen and Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, in Ankara on April 6, 2021 (credit: European Commission)

A brief reminder of the facts

European leaders (Charles Michel and Ursula von Leyen) were in Ankara on Tuesday (April 6) to convey to Recep Erdogan the message of the 27, ready to resume dialogue with Turkey under certain conditions (read: Turkey put to the test before positive steps. See you in June (Summit)). Three hours of intensive meetings, which lead to a communication minima (read : Small step for de-escalation with Turkey. Summit meeting in Ankara). The main point, however, is quickly erased, at the end of the evening, by a video that creates a buzz.

We see the two Europeans and the Turkish leader entering a room. The two men sit down on the two armchairs, flanked on either side by the European and Turkish flags. An honor. Some visitors are only allowed two Turkish flags (see box). Ursula von der Leyen remains standing, and does not hide her surprise when realizing that she is relegated to a secondary place. We hear him say “um”, without any of the male interlocutors reacting. In the next image, she is sitting on a sofa, in the background, facing the Turkish Foreign Minister.

Scandal in the European bubble… “ An affront to the President of the European Commission » headline several newspapers (in the wake of AFP dispatches). Comments are pouring out on social networks and in newspaper columns. The blame is successively placed on the Turkish leader, accused of having humiliated the woman (in the wake of the denunciation of the Istanbul Convention). Then it was the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, who was targeted, called an odious macho man. “ Two men and a bassinet: macho scandal in Ankara headlines the Belgian daily Le Soir. We are in a phase of collective release. However, we must keep reason, and return to a certain sense of reality.

Protocol, an art

First of all, it must be said that protocol is an art, a science. It's a " real job », confides to us a diplomat experienced in this exercise. The tempo of a visit, the place of each person are calculated to the millimeter. Everything is planned – the routes, the vehicles, the light, the room, the arrangement of the seats, their size… “ A simple ascent of a step must be timed ". It is the same with the duration of the handshake and its vigor, which are the testimony of a great or small friendship.

Preparatory missions

Before any trip by a national (or European) authority, there is normally a preparatory mission. Even visiting the friendliest country requires this preparation. It can take two days. The more distant or unfriendly the country is, the more preparations and preparatory missions are required. Fix these details takes days and days of tradings ".

A real balance of power

The local protocol will set certain conditions. And the protocol of the invited power discuss them or require others. It's a " real balance of power ". Whoever has the most interest in the visit will have to give in, whoever is stronger can impose certain formalities. Each of the details will thus be discussed. Negotiations can sometimes be very hard ". Some countries, which have a millennial or imperial tradition, have the protocol pegged to the skin. Japan (where the duration of the rise of the steps is measured) or China for example, but also Turkey. The simple visit to the palace of Topkapi, in Istanbul, where the sultans thus received the ambassadors, is “ megaprotocolized ". The path, the bypass of the fountain, the pace of the walk, the stops, etc. Everything is thought out.

Was the protocol followed?

Who should sit next to Erdogan?

In Turkish luminosity, only one person usually sits next to the 'monarch'. And even. Sometimes there is none (see box). Logically, it is normal for the President of the European Council, who represents the heads of state and government of the European Union, to sit on an equal footing with his Turkish host. And not the President of the European Commission who is 'only' head of the European executive.

Could there be two people on either side of Erdogan?

That would have been tricky. This meant that it was supervised by Europe. A symbol that is too negative for Turkey, inaccurate in relation to institutional and protocol reality. And far from the desired discussion of equals... Let us also add that the Europeans do not seem to have asked for this equality.

Why is Charles Michel sitting and not Ursula von der Leyen?

So it's not a question of sexism as some have said. It's just the rule of precedence, internal to Europe. In terms of external relations, it is the President of the European Council who assumes this role. “ The President of the European Council ensures, at his level and in his capacity, the external representation of the Union on matters relating to the common foreign and security policy, without prejudice to the powers of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs. and security policy » indicates Article 15 of the Treaty. And Charles Michel wants more than anything to take on this role. NB: in G20 meetings, where both people are present, the President of the European Council thus takes precedence.

Doesn’t the President of the Commission have an external role?

Yes, but not directly. It is the European Commission as a whole which has received this competence. “ With the exception of the common foreign and security policy and other cases provided for by the Treaties, [the Commission] ensures the external representation of the Union ". The President of the Commission has, according to the treaty, only a role of orientation and organization of the European executive. He she " defines the guidelines within which the Commission carries out its mission; decides on the internal organization of the Commission in order to ensure the coherence, effectiveness and collegiality of its action; appoints vice-presidents » (according to article 17 of the Treaty).

Why is the President of the European Commission only in second place?

Even if on the side of the European Commission, we defend that the two personalities have the same protocol rank, this is not the institutional reality. In hierarchical terms, the President of the Commission proceeds (is elected) from a decision of the European Council and the European Parliament. And not the reverse. He's basically a prime minister. In a dual system, with a President (in charge of external relations) and a head of the executive, it is logical that the latter is relegated to second place. In European Council meetings, for example, over the years the place of the President of the European Commission has varied. But he has not been at the center of the image, always in 3rd or 4th position, or even at the extreme (during international meetings).

Family photo at the March 2011 summit. In the center the President of the European Council (Van Rompuy), the President of the Commission is in 4th position on the right (credit: Consilium)

Whose fault is it ? What lesson can we draw for the future?

If we have to look for someone to blame, we should not look for it in Ankara… but in Brussels.

Did Erdogan want to humiliate Europe? Erdogan cannot stand reprimands about respecting human rights. He believes that by having done the 'job' on migration, Europe owes him a debt. By attacking Europe through its weak point, the plurality of its institutions, their complexity, the Turk perhaps wanted to score a point, to drive a wedge into a European structure of which he knows every nook and cranny. But maybe he wasn't the one at fault...or the only one.

Did Erdogan want to humiliate the woman? The Turkish leader certainly has big flaws. But he has a certain political sense. When Angela Merkel was received by Erdogan, she was enthroned by his side in the seat where Charles Michel was. Note the small touch of the bouquet of flowers and the German flag behind the Chancellor.

Angela Merkel and RT Erdogan in Ankara – credit: Turkish president

The same goes for Britain's Theresa May in January 2017. But without a bouquet of flowers or the British flag. There are two Turkish flags behind the two dignitaries. The atmosphere seems fresher…

Theresa May and RT Erdogan – January 2017 – credit: Turkish Presidency

Who organized the visit? Apparently it was the Council's protocol department that managed the visit. It was he who fixed certain details with the Turkish presidency. And, naturally, he favored his leader (Charles Michel) and institutional logic. There was no European Commission protocol team. Ursula von der Leyen having decided not to send any due to the pandemic. Afterwards, we of course seek to repair the damage. “ If the room had been visited, we would have suggested to our hosts that, out of courtesy, the sofa be replaced by two armchairs for the President of the Commission “explains the protocol service of the Council.

Could we react at the time? Delicate. This kind of thing is prepared in advance. To shake up the established protocol is to risk a diplomatic incident. However, both European and Turkish leaders were on a tightrope walk, trying to rebuild a complicated relationship, damaged by several past incidents. On the set of the Belgian continuous news channel LN24, Charles Michel explains that any reaction on his part could have created a “ much more serious incident » given the crucial importance of this meeting with the Turkish president. Same story, a little more bitter however at the Commission. “ President von der Leyen was surprised. She decided to override and prioritize substance over protocol underlines the Commission's spokesperson, Eric Mamer. " But that doesn't mean she doesn't care about the incident. »

How to gauge Ursula von der Leyen's 'Hum'? Faced with this type of situation, it can be seen as the right response. Although it is unclear whether the 'Hum' was intended for the Turkish leader or the European, or both. We can also see it as a sign of total unpreparedness, a certain lack of geopolitical etiquette. Finding out at the last moment that you don't have a seat is also quite confusing. Usually, this type of visit is repeated or explained by protocol to the president. Or maybe it's wanting the incident. Exposing internal divisions in broad daylight, in front of a foreign guest, is rather negative. This could appear as a sign of additional fragility. (2)

Who is at fault? In this story, it is therefore not really Erdogan who is at fault, but the Europeans. And their crippling lack of coordination. Certainly, Charles Michel, with his interpersonal skills for international meetings, somewhat upsets the fragile European balance. He was seen traveling the Mediterranean world upon his arrival. We saw it in Georgia recently. Where despite his best efforts, he hit a bone. The European Tintin loses its feathers with each international meeting (Read also: When Tintin Michel goes for a walk, the European Council toasts). Between Ursula and Charles, moreover, the rag is on fire. And, since the incident, they have not spoken to each other. It also did not help that the EU ambassador in Ankara had little involvement in the visit.

A very European problem? There is a competition between the different European officials who cannot clearly delimit their functions, all want to be in the photo, to be 'caliph in place of the caliph', as Iznogoud would say (1). This game, quite childish, is difficult to understand within Europe, and even more difficult to grasp outside. European leaders would do well to resolve their internal problems and accept a common, clear, simple hierarchy, rather than exposing their divisions and internal quarrels to the open.

The lesson to be learned? Visiting an authoritarian leader like Erdogan (or Putin) is taking a risk. A definite risk. Europe is no longer perceived today as a puny animal, a kind being to whom we owe consideration. It can also be perceived in a hostile way. European leaders must not be naive. Even very well prepared, they go into the funnel. A host who does not automatically respect all the common rules will want to use this visit to their advantage. Josep Borrell's visit to Moscow proved this (read: Josep Borrell's trip to Moscow: legitimate, necessary, useful?). The risk of being trapped is not 2 or 3%. It is 100%! Europe is, in fact, faced with a “ double phenomenon » analysis for B2 by an experienced diplomat: the European institutions « are more exposed than in their past (they are more present and we ask them for more). And there is " a brutalization of international power relations ". This " brutality of the geopolitical game ", Europe must better prepare and manage it in the future. “ Everything needs to be locked down even more ».

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde, with Leonor Hubaut)

  1. See Iznogoud by Rene Goscinny.
  2. NB: We would have preferred not a 'hum', a mark of a slightly misplaced ego, but a sign on the unfavorable situation of human or women's rights in Turkey (even subliminally like a touch of color violet).

Return to the past of Turkish-European meetings

Is there a precedent with such a hierarchy?

Yes, when Erdogan receives Charles Michel and Josep Borrell in March 2020. Charles Michel is alongside the head of state. And the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, is relegated to the sofa. He doesn't make a pipe dream and appears all smiles in front of it. It is true that the roles were clearer, one being the representative of the heads of state and government, the other being the head of European diplomacy.

Josep Borrell, Charles Michel, Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 6, 2020 (credit: European Commission)

Another example. When Erdogan received in October 2015, in the midst of the migration crisis, the vice-president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans (in charge of Fundamental Rights at the time), seated to the right of the Turkish president, the other commissioners (J. Hahn in charge of Neighborhood, D. Avramapoulos in charge of Immigration)… are relegated to the sofa. To the left of the Turkish president sits his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Feridun Sinirlioğlu. Turkey thus plays two against one. And there is no problem between men and women. We are certainly faced with a lower level of representation: a simple vice-president of the Commission.

Beril Dedeoğlu, Turkish Minister for EU Affairs, Feridun Sinirlioğlu, Turkish Minister for Foreign Affairs ad interim, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Frans Timmermans, Johannes Hahn, Dimitris Avramopoulos and Hansjörg Haber (from the 3rd, seated, from right to left)

Are there reverse precedents? Yes. During a previous meeting, in May 2017, the two European representatives, at the time Jean-Claude Juncker (European Commission) and Donald Tusk (European Council) were seated side by side with President Erdogan. This example is often put forward by the European Commission. But… we are then in Brussels. That's a big difference! The visit is organized by the European Union. In the photo, we can also clearly see who is in the center: Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, as the inviting power. On his right is the Turkish President, RT Erdogan, looking rather grumpy, and on his left, President Juncker (symmetrically with the Turkish President, chairs slightly at an angle).

RT. Erdogan, D. Tusk, JJ. Juncker – credit: EU Council / Archives B2

Another example, always with the same protagonists, in Antalya this time. The setting differs, it is a bilateral visit. It was on the sidelines of the G20, where Turkey was a powerful inviter. And, above all, it was November 2015, before the military coup which hardened both the regime and relations with the European Union.

Donald Tusk (European Council), RT Erdogan (Turkey), Jean-Claude Juncker (European Commission) – credit: EU Council / Archives B2

On the evolution of relations between Turkey and NATO

To illustrate the importance of seats, we can take another example. We remember the meeting between the NATO Secretary General and the Turkish President, in the NATO premises in Brussels, in March 2020. In the official photo, Jens Stoltenberg is returned to the place of advisors, on a small, tight armchair. While the Turkish president sits in the middle, between two Turkish flags. No NATO flag is present, although this is often the rule within the Alliance.

Jens Stoltenberg and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Brussels in March 2020 (credit: NATO)

The difference is very notable with the meeting of the same people, in September 2016, in Ankara, the day after the military coup. The Turkish president is still in the center, between two Turkish flags. But the general secretary is right next to him, in a somewhat subservient position. Everyone has their legs crossed, as a sign of relaxation. This difference in position is not innocent, four years apart. It reflects a lowering of relationships.

Jens Stoltenberg and Tuc President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara (credit: NATO)

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

4 thoughts on “The sofa strategy. Of power and brutality"

  • You are right, this polemic is unfair and ridiculous, or else it tells us something about the direction in which European officials want to move forward in terms of institutional architecture. Art. 15-6 TEU effectively gives precedence to the President of the European Council. If the President of the European Council had been a president, I'm not sure we would have made a big deal out of it. In short, VDL was put where it was needed as president of a “resource institution”. At the same time, we are so used to constitutional coups that the current ramdam no longer surprises me. In any event, it further tarnishes the image of an EU mired in societal quarrels.

  • Hughes Belin

    Thank you, Nicolas, for analyzing this situation with all the professionalism that characterizes B2, and for not making it a sensational story, like the rest of the press, which lowers itself to the level of social networks. Von der Leyen was in her place on the sofa, because, any woman she was, she is "only" president of the European executive. President Michel committed no fault and acted (or rather did not act) with composure. The couch was the perfect seat, with enough space to hold von der Leyen's ego. I do not believe that this one served the cause of women on this occasion, no offense to feminists (who, moreover, lead a legitimate fight).

  • Very good analysis but the management of EU-Turkey relations is a permanent disaster which results in large part from the inability of the different components of the EU to hold a speech of firmness. As in Moscow with Borrell, these visits produce no other result than to serve the soup to the autocrats. We must make ourselves respected by limiting ourselves to technical contacts.

  • Manuel Lopez Blanco

    An unsatisfactory analysis. The good precedent is the photo of Tusk and Juncker's visit to Erdogan, where the two EU representatives were seated on opposite sides of their host, Erdogan. It is obviously the format of this meeting that the Commission should have in view. It is clear that Erdogan or his protocol service, often diplomats who invest their lack of power and influence in protocol shenanigans, who let Charles Michel's protocol take over, imbued with his vanity, all proportional to his lack of power real. Michel's role as Chairman of the Board is limited to managing the Board's agenda and representing him, within the framework of his role; which is purely ritual and lacks substance. We can therefore attribute the fault of the protocol oddity, and its anti-feminist repercussions, to the vain stupidity of Michel and his protocol service. Moreover, the rules of precedence established by the Treaties have little to do with rules or usages (infinitely elastic, contrary to what this analysis claims). But it remains true that Von der Leyen placed the whip in the hands of Michel and his services; lack of imagination?, overconfidence?, neglect of matters of ritual? In my opinion, we will not corner her a second time next to Michel. Which will carry this task in what remains of his mandate.

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