Sofagate” or how EU presidencies legitimise Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime.
Wolfgang Streeck is the Emeritus Director of Director the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany
Cross-posted from El Salto (in Spanish)
Translated and edited by BRAVE NEW EUROPE
“Sofagate” or how EU presidencies legitimise Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime.
The European Union has five presidents: one for the European Council, one for the European Commission, one for the European Parliament, one for the European Central Bank and one for the European Court of Justice. (It also has a large number of vice-presidents; after all, we are talking about 27 member states). Recently, coronavirus or no coronavirus, two of Europe’s presidents, that of the Commission and that of the Council, travelled together to meet another president, the only existing president in Turkey, a trip that generated a scandal worth reflecting on at some length in order to better understand this strange beast that is the European Union and its modus operandi.
These days, when presidents meet, photographs are taken and this time was no exception. The photographs, however, can take on a life of their own. What we saw in them was the Turkish leader sitting in a chair next to the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, a former Belgian prime minister, who in turn sat next to him in another chair to his right, while both smiled contentedly at the camera. To his left and right we saw two sofas, two sofas facing each other, one occupied by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the other, opposite her, occupied by the Turkish Foreign Minister. As soon as the photograph was published, the affair was dubbed “Sofagate” by the press, which is what every self-respecting scandal should be called these days, with the suffix “gate” added to the name.
What was the scandal? The answer was obvious: Erdoğan, the Turkish misogynist, had humiliated our other president because she was a woman. Von der Leyen should have had another chair, not a sofa, a chair perhaps on the other side of Erdoğan. Thus, the two European presidents would have stood on either side of the only Turkish president, while the Turkish foreign minister could have watched the scene from his couch observing an empty sofa on the other side of the room. Members of the European Parliament, having nothing better to do in the midst of the pandemic, called for a debate and the new president Draghi called Erdoğan a “dictator”, to the applause of the entirety of the pro-European left-wing liberals with a right-wing mindset. Tempers flared further when unofficial photographs were published, who knows where they came from, showing the presidents and the president entering the room set up for their meeting, with Michel moving to the far end of the room to sit in one of the chairs, then stretching out his legs and smiling provocatively broadly at von der Leyen, who first winces in dismay and then, with a resigned smile, sits down on the sofa to the left. (Not so long ago she, or whoever had been in her place, might have challenged Michel to a duel).
Obviously, this called for a “discourse”, as they say nowadays. Although Michel made it known that he was really upset and could no longer sleep, such was the intensity of his embarrassment, it turns out that the affair had its prehistory. Of course, European presidents have their own separate cabinets, and it seems that there had been two previous visits by them to Turkey to prepare the ground for the big presidential meeting. Also involved was the EU ambassador to Turkey, who happens to be a German diplomat (the EU has its own diplomatic service; again, twenty-seven member states are involved). The von der Leyen cabinet seems to have been able to inspect the room where the three presidents would be served the excellent dinner after their previous day’s work. The cabinet discovered that the chairs on which Erdoğan and Michel would be seated were larger than the one von der Leyen would be seated on, perhaps only because she is smaller than the other two presidents. In any case, her cabinet asked the Turkish state to provide equally small chairs for all three in the interests of gender equality.
Nothing is known, however, about what the two exploratory delegations and the European ambassador did regarding the relative status of the European president. Perhaps they were all careful not to touch on this sensitive issue and instead stuck to the diplomatic handbook that the EU provides to third countries in the event that they take an interest. This states that the president of the European Council is to be considered equal to a head of state, while the president of the Commission is comparable to a prime minister. There is a certain logic to this, because the President of the European Commission is appointed by the European Council and not vice versa. That logic, of course, is not popular in the European Parliament, which may explain why the handbook is so little known and why the European Parliament was so excited by the Sofagate incident.
So far so clear. However, the more we reflect on the matter, the stranger this story becomes. Firstly, where was the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (that’s a post!), a Spaniard called Josep Borrell? Shouldn’t he have been there too? Indeed, he could have been sitting on von der Leyen’s sofa, looking the Turkish foreign minister in the eye, as would have been logical in his case and, of course, as it would have been for his Turkish colleague, given that the two would have found themselves in a situation of reciprocity. It should not be forgotten that Borrell had recently visited Russia, with no European president in his entourage, in the context of the growing tensions between the two countries following Biden’s inauguration as US president. The trip turned out to be a disaster, as the EU and Germany had previously made it known that they would not end the sanctions imposed over Russia’s invasion of Crimea and were even contemplating imposing more over the Navalny case. Borrell, having been humiliated by his Russian counterpart, or so we were told, seems to have been relegated to the sidelines, if not sidelined forever. So perhaps there were two European presidents in Ankara simply so that the Turkish foreign minister would not have an empty sofa in front of him (and that perhaps von der Leyen would have to fill a gap that would otherwise have been an asymmetrical black hole)?
This seems far-fetched, although with the European Union we cannot help but consider extreme scenarios on certain occasions. After all, what needs to be explained in this case is not only why two presidents (a president and a president in fact) travelled to Ankara, but why any EU president travelled there (doesn’t the High Representative for Foreign Affairs etc. etc. have a deputy representative?).
If we assume that the dual trip to Ankara was not just a distraction from the harsh conditions of Belgian confinement, we might therefore suspect that the diplomatic show of force was meant to apologise and forgeiveness for the harsh words uttered by the EU days before, when Prime Minister Erdoğan became President Erdoğan and soon after dictator Erdoğan, i.e. that the visit was meant to signal the beginning of another wonderful friendly relationship. One reason why the EU would find this desirable would be the important role Erdoğan has continued to play for the EU’s domestic peace and tranquillity, which has ultimately allowed it to maintain a liberal immigration and asylum regime that pleases certain voters without having to actually implement it in order to please others.
Erdoğan does this by keeping millions of refugees sequestered in Turkey, mainly Syrians, driven from their homes by an endless civil war prolonged by the ‘West’s’ demand for ‘regime change’, which it is unable to enforce; for this service Turkey reportedly receives three billion euros annually. If Erdoğan were to cease this work, hundreds of thousands of refugees, Syrian and otherwise, would demand a real demonstration of supposed European, i.e. German, generosity and force European governments and the European Union either to confront the political right-wing revolt provoked by the substantial increase in refugees and asylum seekers; or accept the liberal left’s challenge to wage a battle for realistic reform of the current refugee and asylum legal regime, which is unrealistic, politically unsustainable, and only in place to signal Europe’s supposed virtue both externally and internally, given that it only exists formally because it is applied homeopathically and not on a massive scale as it should be, because it only benefits a very small contingent of those who would be entitled to it, given the catastrophic human rights situation in the European hinterland largely caused by Europe’s own disastrous foreign policy in the Middle East, the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa.
With Erdoğan as Angela Merkel’s sturdy gatekeeper appointed in 2016 acting as de facto EU president, (Merkel) Europe’s “friendly face” can be saved without having to be anything more than that: a face. Two presidents and perhaps a little more money, now that Erdoğan needs it and the Next Generation EU has learned how to create it out of thin air, are the least Europe can offer him for his assistance, by way of a guarantee in the year when his old ally Angela Merkel is supposed to be heading for retirement.
The one who was left without a sofa on that fateful day was Osman Kavala, a wealthy Turkish citizen who devotes his fortune to cultural, political and educational projects in his country. Kavala sees himself as a bridge-builder between Turkey and Western Europe, working with Turkish and European partners for democracy in his country and for the cultivation of peaceful relations with his European neighbours. Since October 2017 he has spent his time imprisoned in solitary confinement, originally accused of inciting the Gezi Park demonstrations three years earlier. In 2019 he was finally tried and in February 2020 acquitted of all charges. As he was about to leave the courtroom, he was arrested again, this time for his alleged involvement in the so-called Gülen coup in 2016. The judges who acquitted him are now under investigation for alleged terrorist collaboration. In December 2020, four months before the two European presidents’ trip to Turkey, his second trial began. Prosecutors are seeking life imprisonment for involvement in the coup and an additional 20 years for espionage. The previous acquittal was overturned and the case will be retried. The European Court of Human Rights and other European bodies, including the Parliament, have repeatedly demanded Kavala’s immediate release without success. In fact, Michel’s and von der Leyen’s presidential colleague has publicly declared Kavala guilty several times.
Questions: Couldn’t the two European presidents have made their presence in Erdoğan’s dining room conditional on Kavala’s release? How could Sofagate displace Kavalgate as the European public scandal of the week? And why does “Europe”, as currently personified by the European Union, impose sanctions on Putin over the Navalny case, while granting Erdoğan the simultaneous visit of two presidents, a president and a female president, in spite of Kavala?