Sofagate: What are the lessons for the EU?

The seating arrangement, which has now been dubbed "sofagate", is what will probably be remembered most about the visit of EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel to Ankara. While Michel and Turkey's President Erdoğan sat next to each other on separate chairs, von der Leyen was relegated to a sofa some distance away.

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Turun Sanomat (FI) /

A tactless gesture with a deeper significance

The EU must rethink its relationship with Turkey, Turun Sanomat demands:

“With this propaganda maneuver Turkey wanted to take a swipe at the EU. This tactless gesture will be remembered as an insult to von der Leyen, all other women and the whole of the EU. Last month, Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, which aims to combat violence against women. The situation of women in Turkey is bad, and domestic violence is a serious problem. The human rights situation in Turkey has deteriorated and democracy has been significantly undermined under Erdoğan. The EU must carefully consider on which issues and on what terms it wants to cooperate with Turkey.”

Le Soir (BE) /

The EU has a problem with its leading roles

For Le Soir, the incident highlights the fact that the EU needs a clearer division of roles, especially in foreign policy:

“The episode painfully exposes a systemic problem that has not improved since the famous saying by the American Kissinger: 'If I want to call Europe, who do I call ?' ... In 2017, then president of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, caused a sensation with the proposal: 'Europe would be easier to understand if a single captain was steering the ship.' But it got no further than that. Meanwhile, the problem is being compounded by the apparent rivalry between Michel and von der Leyen (and their respective entourages) on the international stage. The previous tandems worked better.”

De Volkskrant (NL) /

Embarrassing bickering

The sofagate incident is also an indication of a struggle over competences within the EU, De Volkskrant concludes:

“The image that remains imprinted around the world is of a bickering, weak EU. While Commission officials cite Michel's thirst for recognition as the cause of the dispute, the EU Council President's staff blame von der Leyen's hardline stance. ... It's true that a certain amount of tension between Michel and von der Leyen is unavoidable, since both are 'the face' of the EU by virtue of their functions. ... But Michel and von der Leyen's desire for recognition is greater [than that of their predecessors]. ... And the circumstances have changed. The EU is increasingly steered by the bosses, by the heads of government. ... This makes Michel's position less than enviable: 27 leaders above him and a strong Commission President next to him.”

Večernji list (HR) /

Calculated revenge or a mistake of protocol?

Večernji list isn't sure how to interpret the incident:

“It's unclear whether Erdoğan did this on purpose, in a calculated move aimed at humiliating the Commission President and at the same time the EU, which in recent days has complained about Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women. Or whether the error was only in protocol, without any ulterior motives, which some say is also possible. Because Charles Michel, as President of the Council of Europe, represents all 27 member states, while Ursula von der Leyen represents the Commission as the executive body of the European administration. So from this perspective, protocol placed the two according to their importance.”

Wiener Zeitung (AT) /

EU embarassed again

This is the the EU's second foreign policy blunder this year, the Wiener Zeitung points out:

“The deliberate snubbing of von der Leyen, for whom no chair was available next to Erdoğan and Michel, and who therefore had to sit on a sofa at a distance, fits in with the current image of Turkish-European relations. ... It's all the more sobering that instead of standing by his European presidential colleague, Michel simply took a seat next to Erdoğan himself. The visits of EU leaders to authoritarian third countries seem to be ill-fated at present: first the public embarrassment of EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Josep Borrell in Moscow in February, and now the snubbing by Erdoğan of one EU leader in the presence of another. It is precisely in diplomacy that small gestures can be used to show strength and resolve. Once again, the EU has failed to do so, to its own detriment.”

Aargauer Zeitung (CH) /

In the macho trap

The Aargauer Zeitung is also dismayed at Michel's behavior:

“The imagery was clear: here it's the men who have the say, the woman sits on the sidelines. ... Was this a deliberate provocation by the patriarch Erdogan? It's possible. ... Even the smallest detail is politically important. Council President Charles Michel cut a particularly bad figure. At the crucial moment he made absolutely no move to offer his seat to von der Leyen, or to make himself noticeable in any other way. On the contrary: he coldly let his colleague fall into the macho trap.”

Avvenire (IT) /

A metaphor for even worse concessions

The EU must give a clear response, urges Avvenire, and must not allow

“the faux pas of the ceremony to lead to public acceptance of disrespectful and fundamentally unacceptable behaviour. Sofagate reflects an attitude that we cannot tolerate, because it goes hand in hand with a number of other rights violations by Erdoğan's government. ... The tolerance of the fact that the head of one of the European institutions is discriminated against for being a woman (even though attempts are now being made to deny this interpretation of the episode) can be seen as a metaphor for even worse concessions.”