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The deep-seated issues beneath Sofagate

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen with European Council president Charles Michel and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan - Credit: European Union

The diplomatic incident which left Ursula von der Leyen without a chair in her meeting with the Turkish president revealed more than just protocol problems. It exposed deep tensions not just between Europe and Turkey but within the EU itself

It was a day of bounty for memes, hashtags and headlines when European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen was left without a chair at a meeting between EU chiefs and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an Istanbul summit last week.

#GiveHerASeat vied with #Sofagate on Twitter, as European Council president Charles Michel was filmed grabbing the single seat next to Erdogan, both sitting resplendent in front of Turkish and EU flags, while von der Leyen stood, disgusted, before retreating to a nearby sofa.

One of the items on her agenda had been sexism, after Turkey withdrew from the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on violence against women.

The reaction was explosive – Erdogan was blamed for cynically humiliating a powerful woman – but also droll. The popular Bernie Sanders chair meme – sitting at Joe Biden’s inauguration wearing mittens – was photoshopped onto the image. An open letter by women leaders picked up congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s suggestion from 50 years ago for women denied a seat at the table: “bring a folding chair.”

Italian prime minister Mario Draghi, meanwhile, called Erdogan an uncouth “dictator”, a verdict echoed by the German MEP Manfred Weber, leader of the centre-right European People’s Party. A furious Turkey demanded an apology.

But what began the weekend as a near global agreement about Erdogan’s bad behavior had by Monday morphed into the strange and distracting narrative of a petty squabble between rival EU chiefs.

And that’s a big problem – both for the tentative steps to restore Turkish-EU relations after a torrid year and, more fundamentally, for the European bloc’s ability to play a powerful and unifying role in the region.

As the buck-passing over protocol began – Turkey said it did as EU officials had asked; both EU institutions hit back with contradictory claims – the knives turned towards Michel.

His excuse that his unchivalrous behavior was to avoid sabotaging the trip by upsetting Erdogan cut little ice. Erdogan faces a collapsing economy, rising Covid cases, and a new, unfriendly US administration. He needs to re-engage with the EU – which is why he recently pulled back from confrontation over eastern Mediterranean gas drilling rights – and he very much wants the EU to give him more financial support for the four million Syrian refugees Turkey is now housing.

Thousands signed a petition calling for Michel’s resignation as details of a rift with von der Leyen emerged. Belgium’s Flemish newspaper De Tijd called Michel and von der Leyen “inexperienced, ambitious strikers” who refused to pass to each other and relied on their own loyalists.

It cited past “incidents”, including a joint trip in March last year to the Turkish-Greek border, which Michel followed by a meeting with Erdogan that he apparently failed to mention to von der Leyen. They’re both trying to “salt the same snails”, De Tijd observed.

Germany’s Der Spiegel said #Sofagate made a laughing stock of the EU and blamed a power play between the pair. The magazine had previously highlighted what it called their “toddler feuds”, including a quarrel about who would lead a Zoom call with Boris Johnson.

Since the Commission presidency was created 12 years ago, past EU presidential couples – Herman von Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso; Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker – have had their moments, but nothing like this. Meeting Donald Trump in 2017, Juncker jokingly pointed at Tusk and said the EU had “one too many” presidents.

#Sofagate could have been even worse. Turkey’s anti-Erdogan website T24, never one to let the government off the hook, claimed Turkish officials had prevented a second chair-based incident by overriding alleged instructions that only Michel and Erdogan, and not von der Leyen, should enjoy higher-backed seats at lunch.

By Monday, Michel was on an apology tour – he kept reliving the moment, he said, in shame. He had sleepless nights. And well he should. The real result of #Sofagate was to distract from the purpose of the visit, and the vital issues at hand, including provisions for Syrian refugees, visa liberalisation, updating the 1996 customs union and yes, sexist violence.

Von der Leyen said she did use the two-hour meeting to criticise the deteriorating treatment of women in Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership. Turkish anti-femicide activists say at least 300 women were murdered and a further 171 died in suspicious circumstances in 2020.

Turkey was the first state to ratify the Istanbul Convention, but Erdogan was pressured to reject it by hardliners in his own conservative coalition as well as Islamist opposition MPs worried it will promote divorce, damage family values and lead to gay marriage.

The EU is also critical of attempts to ban a pro-Kurdish party and the serial jailing of journalists and opponents following a coup attempt in 2016, including the philanthropist Osman Kavala and Kurdish political leader Selahattin Demirtas, whose release has been demanded by the European Court of Human Rights. Accession talks are frozen due to human rights issues and disputes over the divided EU-member island of Cyprus.

#Sofagate managed to unite Turks of very different views in their condemnation. While pro-government newspapers complained of injustice, political scientist Cengiz Aktar accused the EU of missing the point: “The deliberately humiliating treatment of von der Leyen… True, but what about the deliberately humiliating treatment of tens of thousands of political prisoners of Erdogan whom von der Leyen and Michel were happily visiting?” he said.

Last week’s images led to uncomfortable comparisons with the Russia visit of EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, who fell victim to humiliating choreography when his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov accused EU leaders of lying about the poisoning of Alexei Navalny during a joint press conference, while Russia expelled EU diplomats at the same time.

They also underscore a certain haplessness when faced with the bad boys of international politics. What, in reality, can they do to make leaders such as Putin and his fanboy Erdogan fall in line?

The EU (and the US) imposed sanctions on Russia but Moscow is still building up troops near Ukraine, refusing to attend de-escalation talks. The EU stopped short of sanctions against Turkey, partly because of a charm offensive by a cornered and cash-strapped Erdogan. But Erdogan has reneged on promises before, and holds a trump card – the Syrian refugees, which he once threatened to unleash into the EU if he didn’t get his way.

Brussels hasn’t managed to stem anti-democratic behaviour by its own member states, including Hungary and Poland, meaning it loses the moral high ground against Turkey or anyone else.  There are member states that have not ratified the Istanbul Convention about which Turkey has been rightly criticised. Although no longer a member, the UK hasn’t ratified it either.

Turkey is hardly the only problem for the EU, which is struggling with the latest deadly wave of Covid and its late-starter vaccine rollout, the looming climate crisis, Brexit, and a wilful Russia and China. To cope with the challenges, politicians know that the EU needs reform and leadership, not bickering.

“People are not blind, they understand there’s a problem,” Sergey Lagodinsky, German Green Party MEP and chair of the delegation to the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, told me. “There is this issue of non-effectiveness and slowness of the foreign policy.”

Structural changes were needed, he said, criticising the unanimity requirement for decision-making – which certainly affected Turkey-related issues because of the veto powers of Ankara’s political foes, Cyprus and Greece. He also called for greater political discretion in foreign policy.

“What we’ve experienced with the Russia situation – it’s overlegalised and too bureaucratic,” Lagodinsky said. “We need to be able to make decisions about something like sanctions without being dragged to the European Court of Justice over whether an oligarch’s rights have been abused.”

The EU has launched a Conference for the Future of Europe, which begins as a consultation of EU citizens. The issues are vast – it’s not clear that there is a leadership consensus about where to start. After all, they don’t even seem to know which chairs to sit on.

Five days after their trip, Michel and von der Leyen met to discuss a five-point plan intending to improve cooperation between the commission and the council. The aim is to prevent third countries exploiting Brussels power plays during visits, improving international optics.

It’s not the revolution they need, but it’s a start.

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