Ricardo Borges de Castro / Apr 2021
Photo: European Union, 2021
Between 2011 and 2014, as ‘shadow’ to José Manuel Barroso, then president of the European Commission, I attended countless international meetings and summits with him as the lone EU representative, or together with Council President Herman van Rompuy. Were it not because of my hands-on experience of those years dealing with policy, politics and protocol, I would lay #Sofagate to rest. A lot has already been said, but mostly by people that have never lived through similar situations and look at it from a single angle. On 6 April 2021 in Ankara a lot was at play. It may actually herald the era of a true geopolitical Commission.
Geopolitics crash course
Over the last months, the EU has been on a geopolitics crash course. The infamous visit to Turkey was yet another page in that textbook. But there are more lessons to learn. If we analyse the episode in which Ursula von der Leyen, the first woman president of the commission, is relegated to a second rank official from a strictly gender or protocol angle, we will miss the bigger picture. These are relevant no doubt, but politics matters more.
The gender argument
Given the context in which the visit to Turkey took place, a mere few weeks after President Erdoğan withdrew Turkey from the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women, and the country’s poor record on domestic violence and femicide, it is only natural that one looks at what happened in Ankara through that prism. And indeed, it is very possible that misogyny was at play. But just consider for a moment that roles were reversed: The president of the Council a woman (e.g., Helle Thorning-Schmidt) and the president of the of the Commission a man (e.g., Manfred Weber)? Or that both would be from the same gender. Would we be having the same conversation? Maybe not. True, the world does not run on counterfactuals, so I get the irritation and offence. I felt it myself.
The protocol argument
If we read the Lisbon Treaty or follow protocol orders that can be easily accessed on the internet we will be even more disappointed. If I were a protocol officer at Ankara’s presidential palace and look at those EU documents or treaties, I was sure to be doing the right thing. What is more, I had met an EU (read Council) protocol team confirming that Michel was leading the EU delegation. But the EU is a strange political actor. Even if there is an agreed precedence list, this does not change the competencies of each institution and the fact that the Commission also has external representation powers.
Let us also be clear: It is very hard to set or explain protocol rules and reflect the EU’s power centres when you are not the host or when you are absent. And here von der Leyen’s team made a fatal error: not sending an advance team of its protocol service to Ankara as is normal practice. Evoking COVID19 restrictions to justify that absence is a lame excuse for a commission that wants to be geopolitical, even more so in a context of ill-defined protocol arrangements and tense relations.
As the saying goes, “protocol is politics.” Immediately after the affair in Ankara, many photos of three male presidents sitting side-by-side circulated on social media to illustrate the protocol and gender faux pas. But what many fail to say is that those instances frequently happen either in a context in which the EU is the host and understands the needed equilibrium between institutions or occur in ‘neutral’ political spaces: meetings in the margins of G20, G7, United Nations General Assembly or other international fora. On these occasions, all EU protocol services are present and make sure both leaders are treated on equal basis. But this is politics, not protocol, and follows diplomatic tradition.
Lastly, if one thinks hard: On how many occasions do both EU presidents travel abroad together beyond fixed calendar summits? Not many and maybe there is a reason for that…
The politics argument
This is by far the most important angle by which we should consider what happened in Turkey’s presidential palace. Ankara had the political choice to put a chair on Erdoğan’s left side and decided not to. Why? EU Council protocol present should have insisted on this too, also sending a message on the importance of ‘gender equality’ for the EU, but it chose not to. Why? Had both done so, there would be no #Sofagate. In the end, the visit was a missed opportunity by the sophisticated Turkish diplomacy and a shot in the foot in the EU’s already battered diplomatic image.
More importantly, either intentionally or inadvertently, Turkey fails to see the Commission as a political or as a geopolitical actor. But it should take it much more seriously. After all, when looking carefully at some of the things that Turkey wants from the EU, first and foremost the modernisation of the Customs Union, it is the Commission that can deliver on that. If President Erdoğan wants the Commission to just to be a bureaucratic arm of the EU he will regret what he is asking for. Commission staff will happily just follow facts and rules. And here Turkey is set to lose.
The birth of a geopolitical commission?
No one came out well from #SofaGate. Ironically, the aggrieved part – the Commission and its president – have the momentary upper-hand and should use the incident to assert its position, and establish clear rules on EU external representation, especially when both leaders are present. Maybe the geopolitical Commission was really born in Ankara on 6 April 2021?