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EU-Turkey: The effect of diplomatic norms in the light of the #sofagate

On 7 April, a diplomatic scandal broke out at a bilateral meeting between the presidents of the EU and the president of Turkey. This was not so much due to differences in substance, but to an irregularity in the seating order. The President of the European Commission did not have an equivalent seat to that of the President of the European Council. What may seem like a triviality can have major consequences for bilateral relations. But why are these norms important in diplomacy at all and what is diplomacy allowed to do?

Inconsistencies, indirect humiliation of the counterpart or non-compliance with the etiquette rules have often led to disagreements between countries in history.

Diplomacy is an art of negotiation and is intended to help improve relations between states. The wide range of instruments of diplomacy allows the counterpart, usually the representative of a country, to signal different, sometimes less favourable, intentions. This is often done through body language, ceremonial matters or protocol adjustments – such as the seating arrangement, the omission or underlining of certain symbols. Missteps in diplomacy are not new and occur not only between Turkey and the EU, but also at a reception with the Queen. Inconsistencies, indirect humiliation of the counterpart or non-compliance with the etiquette rules have often led to disagreements between countries in history. At the same time, mankind has attached great importance to the correctness of diplomatic norms since its existence and since the first civilisations, wars. In ancient times, gross violations of these norms could often be interpreted as an act of hostility, if not a declaration of war. While norms were not necessarily written down in earlier history, modern diplomacy is institutionalised all the way through.

Angela Merkel on a state visit to Russia 2007. Photo: Kremlin / Bocharov Ruchei

Even in more recent history, deviations from the norm or particular anomalies during diplomatic meetings have been interpreted differently. Within diplomatic meetings and the setting, little or nothing is left to chance – even more so in meetings at the highest level. What many see as a ceremonial triviality or sloppiness, is often used with a certain intention on the host’s side in meetings – usually with the aim of a demonstration of power. The 2007 meeting between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, for example, is a perfect example of this, as the host’s dog was present at the meeting along with Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin. Apart from the fact that pets are rather a rarity at diplomatic meetings, it was and is also generally known that the German Chancellor is afraid of dogs. It can be assumed that there is a connection between Merkel’s fear of dogs and the presence of Putin’s dog at this bilateral meeting. The background may have been a demonstration of power on the one hand and humiliation of the counterpart on the other.

The President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, also had to go through similar experiences in Ankara on 7 April when she met the Turkish President. Within the EU, there are in fact two persons who can be equated with the position of a president or prime minister. One is the President of the European Council (Charles Michel) and the other is the President of the EU Commission (Ursula von der Leyen). The European Council consists of the 27 heads of governments, the Commission of 27 commissioners, who are most comparable to ministers. Because of this special situation, both presidents are often present at important meetings with foreign partners and participate equally. This is how it was intended to be in Ankara. However, while an appropriate chair was provided for Charles Michel, Ursula von der Leyen did not find an equivalent seat, a second chair. The recordings show a body language of Ursula von der Leyen from which one could assume perplexity. Not enough, the President of the Commission had to sit on a sofa opposite the Turkish Foreign Minister (see photo).

What has taken place in this seating arrangement is in reality a degradation, devaluation and humiliation of Ursula von der Leyen. After all, at diplomatic meetings, people of equal rank always sit opposite each other. Both EU presidents are the equivalent of Turkey’s President Erdogan. If there was an EU equivalent to the Turkish Foreign Minister, it would be the High Representative Josep Borrell, who should have been seated on the sofa. Some media have justifiably quoted the Treaty of Lisbon, which determines that the President of the European Council has a higher position than the President of the Commission. That may be true, but the ranking between Michel and von der Leyen is irrelevant in this context. Because both are – regardless of the fact that Michel is higher in the ranking – equal to the Turkish president (since both are presidents/heads of government). Everything else is not in accordance with the etiquette in this regard. All the more so when the president or head of government (which von der Leyen de facto is) is equated with a foreign minister.

What has taken place in this seating arrangement is in reality a degradation, devaluation and humiliation of Ursula von der Leyen.

Taking into account that Turkey has now also withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention, which is committed to strengthening women’s rights, the whole scandal gives a bitter taste. Women’s rights are increasingly being violated in Turkey, even in the more liberal centres of Istanbul and Ankara. In this light, the seat scandal, now known as #sofagate, also takes on a sexist dimension. And indeed, besides being a diplomatic faux pas, it is also a symbol of sexism on the one hand and EU-Turkey relations, which are on unstable ground, on the other.

Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk with Premier Erdogan in Antalya 2015.
Photo: European Commission / Johanna Leguerre

The Commission President’s upset is not only understandable, but also completely justified. What is less understandable, however, is the passivity of Council President Charles Michel. Not only the passivity, but also the half-hearted apology, the afterwards back-rowing and the relativisation of the faux pas. He also referred to the correctness of protocol. The President of the Council seems to have lost sight of the fact that at previous meetings in Turkey, both EU Presidents were given a seat of equivalent rank. Whether and to what extent this is a deliberate provocation, a signal or just sloppiness remains to be seen. What is certain is that the Turkish side was well aware of the special nature of the EU and had taken this into account in the past.

With such a step, Turkey shows a high degree of disrespect towards the EU.

With such a step, Turkey shows a high degree of disrespect towards the EU. The subsequent relativisation and non-apology will hardly help EU-Turkey relations either. To what extent such an “accident” will affect EU-Turkey relations is difficult to say. It could certainly have a negative effect on the relationship between the two EU presidents and their institutions, which are already in an internal EU rivalry.

Article-Image: European Commission / Necati Savaş

Konstantin Ghazaryan
Neben seiner Mitwirkung an der Interviewführung und -ausarbeitung, verfasst der Political Science MA-Student vor allem Analysen und Kommentare für die Bereiche der internationalen und europäischen Politik. Die Bereiche Sicherheitspolitik, Allianzen und Diplomatie gehören zu seinen Schwerpunkten.

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