6th Jul 2022

'Sofagate 2' tops disappointing day for women

  • Charles Michel at the Africa summit on Friday (Photo:
Listen to article

When Ugandan foreign minister general Jeje Odongo arrived at the EU Council building on Friday (18 February), he casually walked past EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, shook hands with EU Council president Charles Michel and French president Emmanuel Macron, and then posed for a group photo.

Von der Leyen smiled awkwardly before Macron, after an uncomfortable few seconds, steered Odongo back toward her.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels on Friday (Photo:

Odongo eventually exchanged a few words with von der Leyen, but still did not shake her hand.

But what left many observers open-mouthed was how Michel, a host of the event, who was standing nearest to von der Leyen, seemed unaware of the need to intervene — leaving that job to Macron.

The hashtag #sofagate quickly began circulating on social media.

"Now without [sofa emoji] but with a sharp French president," Lykke Friis, Denmark's former minister of gender equality, commented in her Twitter post.

Sofagate is a reference to a previous protocol fiasco involving von der Leyen and Michel that unfolded in April last year in Ankara.

In that case, Turkish diplomats had snubbed von der Leyen by neglecting to give her a chair at a summit with the Turkish president, and, on that occasion too, gallantry seems to have eluded Michel, who did nothing in protest.

Michel's defenders on Twitter laid the blame on Friday's gaffe squarely at Odongo's door, who could not be reached to give his view.

An EU source, who declined to be identified, when asked if von der Leyen felt she got adequate support from Macron and Michel, said: "I think our president has more important things to focus on.

And later Friday an advisor to Michel, Jurek Kuczkiewicz, said the incident was not as it first appeared to many viewers.

The video "clearly shows" Michel was "talking to President Macron while the guest walks by" von der Leyen, Kuczkiewicz wrote on Twitter. The video also showed Michel "turning again to President Macron asking what happened."

Even if the EU institutions wanted to downplay the incident, it still seemed to underline a broader neglect of women's and LGBTI rights at the summit.

Friday's joint communiqué, which is meant to set the tone for European-African relations during the next five years, called "for gender equality and women's empowerment in all spheres of life."

But EU leaders had initially planned to also make a strong statement on women's sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) — and that was absent.

"It may seem like a fringe topic [at the summit], but it's important in terms of what it says about EU values," an EU diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity told EUobserver. "What are we doing this summit for? Is it just photo opportunities?" the diplomat asked.

Absent words

According to a draft of the communiqué being prepared last month, EU leaders had planned to reaffirm "commitment to the promotion, protection and fulfilment of the right of every individual to have full control over, and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality and sexual and reproductive health, free from discrimination, coercion and violence."

The reference to people's "sexuality" free from "discrimination, coercion and violence," also generally supports the rights of LGBTI minorities.

"The EU further stresses the need for universal access to quality and affordable comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information, education, including comprehensive sexuality education, and health-care services," they had intended to include.

But by Thursday morning, just ahead of the start of the summit, the references had been removed.

Michel's office declined to comment Friday as to whether the SRHR language was cut to appease African Union (AU) demands.

"The text is clear and solid on gender equality and women's empowerment in all spheres of life," an EU official said.

Either way, the outcome marks a step back for SRHR by comparison with a previous EU-AU summit in 2017, when a final communiqué mentioned the issue twice.

The EU diplomat said EU member states supporting the language had sought a workaround, but dropped the idea.

"At one point, we thought of doing an EU-only declaration [containing the SRHR pledge], but there was concern that the AU would then come out with an AU-only declaration as well, which would not be good for the image of unity," the diplomat said.


Abortion is legal in just four African countries, and up to 17 percent of maternal deaths in parts of sub-Saharan Africa are caused by illegal pregnancy terminations, according to the WHO.

Homosexuality is formally illegal in 31 out of 54 African countries as well as being de facto illegal in Egypt, according to ILGA-World, a Geneva-based campaign group.

"By cutting references to SRHR, the declaration fails young people and undermines gender equality, and by cutting those to LGBTI freedoms, it consolidates the erosion of human rights," Kasia Lemanska, from Dutch charity AidsFonds, which is trying to fight HIV in Africa, told EUobserver.

This article has been updated to reflect comment by an advisor to Charles Michel.


'Sofagate' was more about power than sexism

Sexism may have played a role, but the deeper meaning of Ursula von der Leyen's humiliation in the palace of Turkish president Erdoğan is political and geopolitical.

Rights watchdog removes video of women in hijab

A French government minister reportedly pressured the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe to remove the video, posted on Twitter, of young women wearing the hijab as part of a wider campaign to combat hate speech against Muslim communities.


Nato's Madrid summit — key takeaways

For the most part Nato and its 30 leaders rose to the occasion — but it wasn't without room for improvement. The lesson remains that Nato still doesn't know how or want to hold allies accountable for disruptive behaviour.


One rubicon after another

We realise that we are living in one of those key moments in history, with events unfolding exactly the way Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt describes them: a sudden crisis, rushing everything into overdrive.

News in Brief

  1. Alleged Copenhagen shooter tried calling helpline
  2. Socialist leader urges Czech PM to ratify Istanbul convention
  3. Scottish law chief casts doubt on referendum
  4. British PM faces mounting rebellion
  5. Russian military base near Finnish border emptied
  6. Euro slides to lowest level in two decades
  7. State intervention ends Norwegian oil and gas strike
  8. France repatriates 35 children from Syrian camp

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis
  4. Council of the EUEU: new rules on corporate sustainability reporting
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers for culture: Protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage!
  6. Reuters InstituteDigital News Report 2022

Latest News

  1. EU readies for 'complete Russian gas cut-off', von der Leyen says
  2. Rising prices expose lack of coherent EU response
  3. Keeping gas as 'green' in taxonomy vote only helps Russia
  4. 'War on Women' needs forceful response, not glib statements
  5. Greece defends disputed media and migration track record
  6. MEPs adopt new digital 'rule book', amid surveillance doubts
  7. 'World is watching', as MEPs vote on green finance rules
  8. Turkey sends mixed signals on Sweden's entry into Nato

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us