Ankara, April 6, 2021: the birth of the geopolitical commission? | opinion

Between 2011 and 2014 I was a “shadow” of the then President of the European Commission, José Manuel Durão Barroso, and took part in numerous international meetings and summits with him as the sole representative of the European Union or together with the President of the then Council, Herman Van Rompuy. Had it not been for my experience in those years, I would have let the so-called #SofaGate die. Much has actually been said, but little by those who have been through similar situations. Much was at stake in Ankara on April 6, 2021. Ironically, this well-spent visit can be the harbinger of a real geopolitical commission.

Intensive geopolitical course

In the last few months the EU has completed an intensive geopolitical course. And Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen’s disastrous visit to Turkey recently was another page in this guide. But there are more lessons to be learned. If we analyze the episode in which the first female president of the European Commission is relegated to a secondary position through exclusive gender equality or a protocol nook, we risk ignoring the essential issue. These aspects are undoubtedly very relevant, but the political perspective is even more important.

The gender argument

Given the context in which the visit to Turkey took place a few weeks after President Erdoğan withdrew Turkey from the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women, and the country’s poor performance in combating domestic violence and femicide if this is the case, of course, see what happened in Ankara from this point of view. And it’s also easy to admit that the incident was a manifestation of misogyny. But suppose for a moment that the roles have been reversed: the President of the Council a woman and the President of the Commission a man? Or that they would both be the same sex. Would we have the same conversation? Maybe not. Now the world no longer works on an ifs, so I get irritated and offended. I felt it too.

The protocol argument

When we read the Lisbon Treaty or follow protocol instructions that are easily accessible on the Internet, the disappointment is even greater. A protocol officer at the Presidential Palace in Ankara who looked at these EU documents or treaties was sure he was doing the right thing. He had also just met with an EU protocol team (see Council) to confirm that Charles Michel was leading the delegation. But the EU is a strange political actor. Even if there is an agreed priority list, this does not change the powers of the individual institutions and the fact that the Commission also has external powers of representation.

Let us also be clear: it is very difficult to determine or explain the rules of protocol and to reflect the balance of power of the EU when you are not the host or when you are absent. And this is where the Von der Leyen team made a fatal mistake: they did not send an advanced team from their protocol service to Ankara as usual. Invoking the Covid-19 restrictions to justify this absence is a shoddy excuse for a commission that wants to be geopolitical, especially in an environment of strained relationships and ill-defined protocol rules.

If we think about it, how often do the two EU presidents travel together beyond the fixed calendar of international, bilateral or multilateral summits? Not many and maybe there is a reason for that …

As the saying goes, “Protocol is Politics”. Immediately after the Ankara incident, many photos of three presidents – all men – sitting side by side were posted on social media to illustrate the protocol and gender gaffe. What they forget to mention is that these cases occur frequently, either in cases where the EU is hosting, and therefore in a context where the necessary balance between the institutions is understood, or in politically “neutral” meetings Margins of the EU G20, G7, United Nations General Assembly or other international forums. In these situations, all EU protocol services – the Council and the Commission – are present and ensure that both heads of state and government are treated equally. But this is politics, not protocol, and it follows an established diplomatic tradition.

Finally, if we think about it, how often do the two EU presidents travel together beyond the set calendar of international, bilateral or multilateral summits? Not many and maybe there is a reason for that …

The political argument

This is by far the most relevant angle to analyze what happened in the Turkish Presidential Palace. Ankara had the political choice of placing a chair to Erdoğan’s left and decided not to do so. Because? The present minutes of the EU Council should have insisted on it too and conveyed the message to the EU on the importance of gender equality, but should not have done so. Because? If both had done this, there would have been no #SofaGate. The visit was therefore an opportunity that such sophisticated Turkish diplomacy missed, and an additional shot in the EU’s diplomatic image.

Above all, whether involuntarily or deliberately, Turkey does not see the Commission as a political or geopolitical actor. But in fact, I should take it much more seriously. If we look closely at some of the things that Turkey wants the EU to do, in particular the modernization of the Customs Union Agreement, the Commission can help achieve that goal. If Erdoğan wants the Commission to be just a technocratic arm of the EU, he will regret it: Commission officials will not hesitate to be guided solely by rules and facts. And here Turkey loses.

The birth of the geopolitical commission?

Nobody looks good in #SofaGate photography. Ironically, the offended party – the Commission and its President – has temporarily increased authority, even with strong criticism of President Michel, and must use the incident to assert its position and establish clear rules for the external representation of the EU, especially if both are European Heads of State and Government do this present. Perhaps the geopolitical commission was born in Ankara on April 6, 2021?

The author writes according to the new orthographic convention

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