“Oh no – can we get another chair for Ursula, please?”
“But, President Erdoğan, we need a third seat.”
“Let’s hold the cameras for a second, while we grab ourselves an extra chair.”
These are just some of the phrases that could have come out of the mouth of EU Council President Charles Michel this week, as part of a faux pas that has contracted the indignation of the Brussels commentariat.
Instead, Michel told us that he didn’t want “to make matters worse by creating a scene,” in the offices of Turkey’s President Erdoğan on Tuesday.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.
As part of a trip to Ankara that had been going relatively well, Michel and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen convened in the office of Turkey’s President, for a photo opportunity that had intended to animate a sense of solidarity between the two parties, amid concerns over the latter’s withdrawal from the Istanbul convention and ongoing maritime disputes with Greece over territorial waters.
However, von der Leyen arrived at the scene to be greeted by the unwelcome sight of having nowhere to sit. An awkward “Erhm,” escaped from her lips, as Michel settled into his place alongside Erdoğan.
Michel shot von der Leyen a glance – he held her stare momentarily, gawkily, and for the most infinitesimal flirt of time, a certain embarrassment appeared across his face, which he subsequently betrayed. Aware of the impropriety, Michel yet continued treading the boards of Erdoğan’s farcical stage, settling himself into his chair, crossing his legs and craning his neck to the Turkish President, who was watching on mercilessly.
Eventually, von der Leyen was relegated to a nearby sofa, with the centre stage occupied exclusively by Michel and Erdoğan.
In Brussels, observers were quick to pounce on Michel’s indiscretion, with the hashtag #GiveHerASeat trending across social media. Many referenced the fact that in a meeting between Erdoğan, Michel and the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell last year – in the exact same room – Borrell was in fact offered the object that von der Leyen had so dearly lacked: a chair, on equal terms.
A day after the event, the Commission’s head spokesperson said that von der Leyen decided to go ahead with the photo opportunity despite the humiliation, prioritizing ‘substance over protocol,’ but that she had nevertheless ‘asked her team to make all appropriate contacts, to ensure that this does not happen again in the future.’
This was followed by a rambling statement from Charles Michel, in which the Council President admitted to having realised the “regrettable nature of the situation,” but he decided “not to make matters worse by creating a scene.”
Speaking to Belgian news channel LN24 on Thursday evening, Michel also said that he was convinced that reacting would have “created much more serious damage to our diplomatic relations with Turkey.”
The Turkish, having been alerted to the media frenzy in Brussels, responded in a forthright manner. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu claimed that the ‘protocol teams’ of both the Turkish and the EU met prior to the engagement to agree on the seating arrangement beforehand.
But there was yet another twist in the tale. A briefing note then surfaced from the Council’s Head of Protocol, Dominique Marro, which gave further insight into the mishap, revealing that a representative from the Commission’s protocol service was in fact absent from the meeting to which the Turkish Foreign Minister referred, and that protocol experts from the EU were not admitted to President Erdogan’s offices before the photograph opportunity.
Marro added however that official protocol – bearing in mind Charles Michel holds the equivalent status as head of state and Ursula von der Leyen as the ranking of a Prime Minister – was followed throughout.
However, one Commission source told me that on official trips such as these, the protocol arrangements, for the EU executive at least, would often be coordinated by the EU delegation on the ground.
“I am surprised that there has been no talk of the office of the EU’s ambassador to Turkey and their involvement in the protocol arrangements. Normally they would have had some sort of an input for ensuring that everything would have been set up properly for the Commission President,” the source said.
The source added that there has been ‘clear tensions’ between Michel and von der Leyen’s teams in the past, and that some members of Michel’s office have ‘expressed frustration’ that the Commission President is stepping more and more into the foreign affairs arena.
Yet of course, the exact rigour with which Michel weighed up his options as he took his seat next to the Turkish President will forever remain unknown.
Adhering to official protocol or not, the scenes that played out across the news and social media of a dumbstruck Commission President facing down an unaffected Council President, represent a charge of cowardice and a direct renunciation of European values.
Let there be no mistake: the Turkish ploy was deliberate, and Michel fell for it, hook, line and sinker. Other leaders in the EU however were more willing to prioritise principle above an over-preoccupation with diplomatic sensitivities – it fell to the new Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi to offer his sincerest sympathies to von der Leyen for the humiliating affair, while in the same breath denouncing Erdoğan as a ‘dictator.’
In that now ill-famed presidential office in Ankara on Tuesday, when their eyes met for that brief moment, perhaps von der Leyen and Michel were both engaged in the same thought process – do not make a scene. That is perhaps the most tragic undercurrent to the whole story.
We would do well to remind ourselves that some of our most profound social, political and cultural advances have been made in the activity of making a scene, in causing a ruckus, in standing up doggedly and boisterously for our values, rather than flaccidly succumbing to the craven prejudices of those on the wrong side of history. Renounce this endeavour at your peril, Charles Michel, for the pursuit of social progress and equality will forever be relegated to the footnotes of EU policy, should you seek to do so. Let’s hope lessons have been learned.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.