A mustachioed Turk,
two gilded high-back chairs and a plush sofa.
Turns out that’s all
it takes to conjure Europe’s ever-elusive cohesion.
Turkish president put EU’s fragile psyche on
leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s quarantining of European Commission President
Ursula von der Leyen to his receiving room sofa in Ankara last week united the
fractious Continent — in outrage.
gaudy décor of Erdogan’s fake sultan’s
choreography evoked an absurdist painting: at the center of the action, the
Turkish president, with his trademark man-spread on full display seated next to
a jittery Charles Michel, the president of the European Council; across the
room, perched upright on a sofa, von der Leyen in a neat red blazer, a picture
of the well-bred German Frau, hands neatly clasped in her lap, in silent
absolutely enraged Europeans, left, right and center. Iratxe
García Pérez, leader of the Socialists & Democrats group in the European
Parliament, called von der Leyen’s treatment
“shameful.” Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a man famous for his temperate
tone, made no effort to disguise his anger over what he described as von der Leyen’s “humiliation,”
comparing Erdogan on Thursday to a “dictator.”
All because of a sofa?
If Europe itself were on the couch, the sofa might represent
something else: the sum of the region’s insecurities, resentments and, above
all, the depth of its inferiority complex.
Contrary to the prevailing European perception, the episode
wasn’t chiefly about disrespect of women, but power. The European Union,
through its shiny buildings and the grand titles of its various “presidents,”
tries hard to project power. A bit too hard, in fact. And people with real power, like Erdogan, not
only see right through the fakery, they revel in putting the Europeans in their
place — on a sofa, if need be.
Merkel has never been banished to Erdogan’s sofa. Why? Because Erdogan takes
her and her power seriously. Given that neither Michel nor von der Leyen (their
titles notwithstanding) have much power, humiliating them is all the more
tempting for someone like Erdogan. It goes down well with his base and
carries zero downside risk. What’s the EU going to do about it?
Not even Michel and von der Leyen seem to know. Since the
incident, they’ve been too busy pointing fingers at one another and their aides
for the “protocol” mishap.
effort to claim innocence, Michel, a former Belgian prime minister, appears to
have gone through the five stages of grief and back again. Mainly, he is just
“saddened,” Michel confessed in a Facebook post last week. But what he seems
most upset about is that he got caught on live TV acting like a chauvinist cad
by not offering von der Leyen his seat.
The rivalry in Brussels between Michel and von der Leyen is
no secret. And judging by the Commission’s response, von der Leyen has enjoyed
every minute of Sofagate. Her staff milked the perceived slight in Ankara for
everything it was worth. Less than 24 hours after the episode, von der Leyen’s
aides had already delivered detailed reports on how MEPs and the public were
“Overall, PEC and Erdogan are blamed for their attitude –
clear support to the President with new hashtags like #WeWantOurSeat or #GiveHerASeat,”
read one internal analysis viewed by POLITICO (PEC refers to the president of
the European Council, Michel).
telling that the real purpose of the EU leaders’ mission to
Ankara has been drowned out by the collective indignation over the seating
arrangements. But then, few in Europe like to be reminded of the degree
to which they rely on Turkey to keep the huddled masses from the Middle East
and Africa at bay. Nor do they want to be reminded that the arrangement
involves billions in cold, hard cash.
jarring to, as Germany’s public TV broadcaster did in its report on the visit, highlight Erdogan’s
absence from the post-meeting press conference, where von der Leyen and Michel
spoke to the sanctity of human rights and the Istanbul Convention (so what if few Europeans had ever
even heard of the accord until Erdo?an’s recent decision to withdraw from it).
Never mind that Turkey has taken in millions more refugees
than wealthy Europe.
The European reaction is typical of people plagued by feeling
inadequate and powerless. Instead of acknowledging Europe’s continued reliance
on Turkey to keep migrants off the Continent and the questionable concessions
the EU has made to keep that arrangement alive, they focus on style, manners —
and especially their particular definition of “morality.”
For even if Europe fails at the power game, it is in a class
of its own when it comes to projecting moral superiority.
Only a cynic would suggest the EU’s engagement with Turkey
was about paying it off to keep hosting refugees, Brussels’ argument goes. The
real mission was human rights, and, in particular, women’s rights. The Istanbul
Convention! What more is there to say?
the perfect foil for Europe’s morality patrol. He’s uncouth, a
populist-cum-dictator and, most important — though never to be mentioned or
acknowledged — a Muslim.
may buttress their outrage over Erdogan’s treatment of von der Leyen with the
vocabulary of feminism, but the subtext is unmistakable to anyone familiar with
pervades European society. To many European eyes, Erdogan didn’t just treat von
der Leyen with disrespect by sticking her on the sofa, rather he handled her
like “they” do all women.
One could almost hear the collective sigh in the reaction to
the video from Ankara: How lucky we are to be European.
instead of attacking Erdogan, Europeans should be thanking him.
He didn’t just reunite Europe’s tribes for a few days, he
helped them feel like real Europeans again.
* Matthew Karnitschnig* is POLITICO’s chief