Wednesday

7th Dec 2022

Column

'Sofagate' was more about power than sexism

"Because I am a woman," EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament last week, trying to explain why she had been mocked with a missing chair during a recent trip to Ankara.

"I felt hurt, and I felt alone, as a woman and as a European," von der Leyen said. "This shows how far we still have to go before women are treated as equals, always and everywhere."

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  • By playing the female victim role, von der Leyen unnecessarily weakened herself, the Commission, and what it represents

With this, von der Leyen has chosen a shallow explanation for what caused 'Sofagate'.

Sexism may have played a role, but the deeper meaning of her humiliation in the palace of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is political and geopolitical.

Sofagate is about the balance of power in Europe. It is about von der Leyen's 'geopolitical commission' and the common European interest it represents being undermined both by foreign powers, and by EU member states themselves.

Before the commission president played the sexism card in parliament - at length, in three languages - the meaning of Sofagate was clear.

It all spoke for itself: that irritated "Uhmm" of the commission president, that questioningly raised palm. And most of all, that pricelessly guilty face of European president Charles Michel, the representative of EU member states who looked like a child caught with his hand in the candy jar: he had quickly annexed the one available big armchair, leaving her standing.

Von der Leyen was humiliated. But the subsequent reactions quickly showed that she had not been weakened by the episode.

Naughty schoolboys

On the contrary: it was Michel and Erdoğan who were twisting and turning for days, dishing out excuses and convoluted explanations to the media, and blaming each other.

The more they tried to justify themselves, and the more they proposed vague initiatives on equal rights, the more uncomfortable it became for them. All von der Leyen had to do, and did for a while, was sit back and enjoy the show of the two other presidents getting what they deserved.

And why did they deserve the embarrassment? Because it always goes like this – female commission president or male commission president. The difference is that for once, it became hot news, largely thanks to the videos that started circulating immediately.

Some third countries don't like the commission very much.

The commission is, after all, a symbol of European integration. It stands for doing things together, for trying to speak with one voice, for European values.

Jealous rivals, out to weaken the bloc, like to bypass the commission and do business with member states individually. They like to play one against the other, or all against the commission, in order to water down or block common European policies.

This is a complicated game, but China, Russia or Turkey have become rather good at it.

No wonder: they often find member states willing to play along - because they, too, have an interest sometimes in weakening or preventing a common European approach. Sofagate just underlines that Michel, for all his efforts to make believe he represents Europe, is in reality the representative of the member states.

Von der Leyen told parliament that her predecessors were never left without a chair in Turkey. She is right.

But Jean-Claude Juncker, her predecessor, was also belittled by president Erdoğan - albeit in different ways.

The Turkish president sometimes made him wait for hours. And once, when Erdoğan thought Juncker's offer to co-finance the reception of Syrian refugees was too meagre, Erdoğan told the former prime minister of Luxembourg to show more respect for a large country like Turkey. "Luxembourg is just like a little town in Turkey," he supposedly said.

There is a video of Juncker and European president Donald Tusk - Charles Michel's predecessor - doing a photo-op in Brussels with US president Donald Trump, who was not very supportive of European unity. Trump ignores Juncker, who then jokes: "There's one too much (sic)."

China, meanwhile, keeps offering EU countries loans for infrastructure projects with terms that violate European procurement rules, among other things.

China doesn't care: the more EU countries clash with the commission, the weaker Europe becomes. These divide and rule tactics may occasionally backfire.

Beijing, Budapest, London

But often, they work: Hungary, which is fast becoming a Chinese hub in Europe, routinely blocks EU statements on human rights in China. Last week, China's president Xi Jinping publicly thanked Hungary for "its firm adherence to a friendly policy toward China".

Russia has used the same tactics for years, mocking the EU for being simply the puppet of the United States. Moscow now refers more easily to Brussels, but usually to try and belittle it.

The UK, too, likes to take bilateral routes instead of working with Brussels directly.

During the withdrawal negotiations, London was permanently trying to bypass the negotiator, Michel Barnier, who had to constantly watch and visit every capital to ensure unity.

But all member states understood the risks of listening to the Whitehall sirens, and unity was maintained till the end.

Still, UK ministers cannot bring themselves to even mention the EU. When the US, UK and EU imposed sanctions on China in April because of the way it treats its Uighur citizens, British foreign minister Dominic Raab described the threesome coalition as "our partners, 30 in all."

There are hundreds of examples like that, showing that Sofagate was not an accident, but fitted a pattern. It wasn't just von der Leyen, as a woman, being singled out in Ankara.

It was the most powerful European institution, the symbol of European unity.

By playing the female victim role, von der Leyen unnecessarily weakened herself, the Commission, and what it represents.

She should have either politicized it or remained silent, letting the awful footage speak for itself.

Perhaps more than all the other humiliations of commission presidents in the past, this particular incident made it clear for all to see that Michel and Erdoğan had behaved improperly. This should not have happened - even if the commission president had been a man.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This column is an edited version of a column in NRC.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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