Oh dear. After weeks of unedifying rows over Europe's vaccine procurement disaster, two top Brussels' officials are now embroiled in a new diplomatic incident. On Tuesday, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel paid a trip to Ankara to meet with Turkish leader President Erdoğan.
Unfortunately the three hour long discussion on issues such as women's rights got off to a bad start when von der Leyen was denied an armchair beside Erdoğan as the discussions began, being instead confined to a sofa opposite Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu. A visibly annoyed von der Leyen muttered 'Ehm' and gesticulated at the occupied seats, as Michel and Erdoğan made themselves comfortable at the head of the gilded room in the presidential complex.
Of course #Sofagate quickly exploded on Twitter, with MEPs lining up to proclaim their indignation at the perceived sidelining of the continent's top female Eurocrat. German Green Hannah Neumann declared: 'Von der Leyen is not the problem. The problem is the two other guys who put her in that position' while the largest voting bloc the European People's Party went even further in its denunciations: 'Someone should be ashamed because of the lack of the proper seat. Women deserve the same recognition as their male colleagues.'
— Antoine Llorca (@antoinellorca) April 7, 2021
Ursula Von Der Leyen, présidente de la Commission Européenne, et Charles Michel, président du Conseil européen, ont rencontré #Erdogan à Ankara.Regardez qui des deux présidents d’institutions européennes a eu le droit à un siège... 🙄#GiveHerASeatpic.twitter.com/XUU7Y2SXyE
Subsequent briefings have made clear that von der Leyen was not taking the perceived snub sitting down. Her spokesman Eric Mamer voiced the fury of his master on Wednesday at a press conference and that the incident had 'sharpened her focus' on the subsequent discussion of equal rights. He claimed: 'The president of the commission was clearly surprised and that is something you can see from the video… The protocol level of our president is exactly the same as that of the president of the European council.' But is that really so?
As Jean Quatremer explains in the French newspaper Liberation the so-called 'incident' is really nothing of the sort and merely the result of the Turks sticking to the EU's own bizarre protocol. With four different European presidencies, it is easy to see how such mix ups can occur but according to the 'interinstitutional agreement' of March 1, 2011 the protocol is fixed exactly as it is in the French Republic. This fixes the order of precedence as the President of the European Parliament coming first, followed by the President of the European Council, the rotating Presidency of the Council of Ministers and, finally, the President of the Commission i.e. von der Leyen. This means that when the Presidents of the European Council and of the Commission are on a mission in third countries, the former is officially the head of the delegation, not the latter. Naturally therefore Michel would sit alongside Erdogan as the head of state while von der Leyen and Cavusoglu would sit socially distanced apart in a four way discussion.
While losing your seat may be an unfamiliar experience to the unelected von der Leyen, Steerpike hopes her efforts to improve the vaccine rollout go better than her diplomatic forays have been sofa.