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21st May 2022

'Sofagate 2' tops disappointing day for women

  • Charles Michel at the Africa summit on Friday (Photo: consilium.eu)
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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.

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  • Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels on Friday (Photo: consilium.eu)

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.

Erosion

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.

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