An article by Lea Schiller
It is a video that is uncomfortable to watch – Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, is left standing while Turkish President Erdoğan and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, take the two chairs in the centre of the room in Ankara. This incident is now widely known as “Sofagate”. It turned a meeting meant to improve relations between the European Union (EU) and Turkey into a diplomatic scandal. Side-lining one of the EU’s leaders, a female one at that, to a sofa while the two men self-evidently take the chairs has prompted discussions about sexism and the relationship between the European Commission and the European Council – for good reason. In the following, I will lay out why this situation cannot – and should not – be brushed aside.
Official responses to the incident
Later in the month, von der Leyen gave an impassioned speech to the European Parliament, describing her discomfort in the situation and blaming sexism for the incident: “In the pictures of previous meetings I did not see any shortage of chairs. But then again, I did not see any women in these pictures, either” (Boffey, 2021). It is a strong choice of words – especially when compared to Michel’s response. The President of the European Council claimed the incident was “regrettable”, but also did not apologise in this initial statement on the situation (Gray, 2021). After heavy criticism from women’s rights groups as well as members of the European Parliament, Michel expressed regret and his apologies for the situation (Boffey, 2021). Meanwhile, Turkey’s Foreign Minister put the blame for the lack of chairs on the EU, arguing that the seating arrangement had been made based on the demands made by the EU. Council president Michel however, blamed Turkey’s strict interpretation of the EU’s protocol rules (BBC, 2021). This is a blame game that does not leave either Turkey or Michel in a good light. Turkey, because the agenda for the meeting included Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention of Violence Against Women. Michel, because of his seemingly instinctive decision to sit down while von der Leyen was left standing.
Sofagate and its consequences
Sofagate is no laughing matter, and its ramifications are twofold. Firstly, the EU has made itself vulnerable to scrutiny of the relationship between its Council and its Commission. There have long been rumours of tensions between von der Leyen and Michel (Herszenhorn, de la Baume & Barigazzi, 2021), and this incident has only added more fuel to the fire. Afterwards, Michel struggled to explain his inaction as von der Leyen was left standing – his reasoning being that he did not want to cause a diplomatic incident and compromise the success of the meeting (von der Burchard & de la Baume, 2021). While this is a fair objection to those demanding he should have insisted on a third chair, its argumentative power wanes in light of Michel’s later complaints that the controversy around the situation had overshadowed the actual meeting – a questionable comment from one of the two people who were provided with a chair. And secondly, the EU has visibly failed to take a stand for women’s rights, and perhaps even more importantly, for respect towards one of its highest representatives.
Why Sofagate affects the European Union as a whole
Instead of discussing the results of the EU’s talks with Erdoğan, the attention is now on the missing chair, and the clumsy way it was handled by the EU. The European Union was left standing divided between two of its big powerhouses, having failed to stand up for itself and for women’s rights. This comes to show that incidents like these cannot be written off as funny or unfortunate mistakes – they expose a deeper incoherence in the EU’s internal power structure, and they make us painfully aware of the sexism that is deeply rooted in the highest ranks of the EU. Us – that is not only European citizens, but also those working within the EU. In the words of Sophie in ’t Veld, who is a Dutch MEP in Brussels: “Europe will never become a strong, geopolitical force until it learns to stand up for itself by speaking with a single voice” (in ’t Veld, 2021). In the end, it is not only Michel and Erdoğan who have been tainted by “Sofagate”, but the European Union as well.
BBC News (2021, April 8). Turkey blames EU in ‘sofagate’ diplomatic spat. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/56676344
Boffey, D. (2021, April 26). ‘Sofagate’ snub would not have happened to a man – von der Leyen. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/26/sofagate-snub-would-not-have-happened-to-a-man-von-der-leyen
Gray, A. (2021, April 7). Charles Michel on Sofagate: Not my fault. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/charles-michel-on-sofagate-not-my-fault-ursula-von-der-leyen-recep-tayyip-erdogan/
Herszenhorn, D.M., de la Baume, M., & Barigazzi, J. (2021, August 29). Presidential power wars: von der Leyen vs. Michel. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/battle-in-the-bubble-ursula-von-der-leyen-and-charles-michel-clash-for-presidential-primacy/
in ’t Veld, S. (2021, April 9). What Sofagate says about Ursula von der Leyen. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/what-sofagate-says-about-ursula-von-der-leyen/
von der Burchard, H. & de la Baume, M. (2021, April 8). Charles Michel on Sofagate: ‘I deeply regret this situation’. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/charles-michel-admits-mistake-in-sofagate/