Geoff Meade / Apr 2021
Photo: European Union, 2021
For want of a posh chair, Turkey’s chances of EU membership may have just plummeted to infinitesimal from “leave a message and we’ll get back to you”.
It’s one thing to be frozen out because your nation, in the words of the European Commission, “has been backsliding in the areas of democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights”.
But quite another to be shunned because you left a lady of standing standing, while two men of equal standing were sitting.
The first is gritty global politics; the second offence is far worse – a glaring breach of EU protocol.
This is the trouble in a European Union where there have always been far too many presidents: sometimes no-one knows which president takes precedence over which other president.
There are even more “presidents” if you speak French – at least thirty in the European Parliament alone, thanks to a language which mysteriously gives the title of “président” to anyone vaguely in charge of anything political instead of finding a French word for chairman or chairwoman or chair.
The European Parliament even holds a regular “Conference of presidents” at which the Parliament president presides over meetings of political group bosses who mostly describe themselves as “leader” or “chair” or “co-chair” in real life.
So the protocol problem which stole the headlines when two EU presidents visited the Turkish president at his presidential palace is certainly not, forgive me, unprecedented…...
Somehow no-one involved in forward planning in the European Commission (for President Ursula von der Leyen), nor in the European Council, (for President Charles Michel), nor in the inner sanctum of the host, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, remembered that the basic requirement of a meeting of three presidents – surely equals on this occasion - would be three identical posh chairs to sit in side by side.
There is indeed, a precedent at the palace for just such a Turkish presidential meeting with two EU presidents in the recent past.
But on this occasion the two blokes behaved like, well, blokes, and nabbed the two posh chairs, leaving Ursula standing like a spare part before reluctantly plonking herself into an admittedly posh-looking sofa on the sidelines.
It certainly looked as though one of those three presidents thought that he was more important than the other two, and one of the other two clearly thought that he was more important than the other one with whom he had travelled to Turkey to visit the third.
What was interesting was that neither of the two EU presidents felt that they were presidential enough in the presence of the Turkish president, (who might take precedence), to click their fingers and summon a third chair.
A Turkish official later deflected blame from President Erdogan by questioning the state of relations between the two EU presidents and their protocol teams and he may have a point..
So for an example of inter-institutional EU presidential diplomacy at its finest let’s go back to 2012, when the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for advancing the causes of democracy and human rights. (Turkey, as an EU club wannabe, please take note).
As soon as the news was announced by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, the question in Brussels became: who will receive the honour?
The first significant reaction to the award came in a press statement from the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, who announced that he was looking forward to receiving the award on behalf of all the people of the EU.
The President of the European Council, Herman Von Rompuy, was also gracious in a statement released shortly afterwards, saying (I paraphrase) that he looked forward to receiving the award on behalf of all the governments of the EU.
Within minutes President Barroso was on record as (I paraphrase) welcoming the award and looking forward to receiving it on behalf of all the EU member states.
With all three presidents determined to be at the award ceremony, a series of three-way presidential protocol meetings was set up to head off the prospect of a political bust-up which would render the whole notion of an EU “peace” prize laughable.
One problem was that only two presidents would be allowed to speak at the awards ceremony, leaving the third in a front-row seat in the audience.
Slowly the EU protocol maestros worked their magic: by Nobel awards day it had been agreed that presidents Rompuy and Barroso would both speak from the awards platform, in that order, delivering “one speech, but two chapters” as Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland diplomatically explained. (Please note: Jagland calls himself chairman despite having once been president of the Norwegian parliament.).
But before the speech(es), all three presidents went on stage together. The Nobel Peace Prize medal was presented to President Schulz – compensation for being left speechless - while the other two presidents jointly received the Nobel diploma, each man holding one side of the document as stipulated in the EU Nobel peace prize protocol agreement.
By happy coincidence, the reverse side of the gold Nobel medal depicts three men “forming a fraternal bond” – but none of the well-honed bodies much resembles Schulz, Rompuy or Barroso and there’s not a female in sight.
Which brings us back to Ursula: I have just received a copy of a strong statement issued by a trade union which represents EU staff. It says President von der Leyen was publicly humiliated when she met President Erdogan and condemns the incident as “an institutional and strategic error for which the responsibility rests mainly with the President of the European Council.”
The letter is in the name Georges Vlandas, the head of U4U, the Union for Unity. He is often described as its chair, but his correct title, of course, actually begins with a P.