What Sofagate says about Ursula von der Leyen – POLITICO

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Sophie in ’t Veld is a Dutch MEP from the Democrats 66 party, part of the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament.  

For the second time in a row, the new “geopolitical” European Union has failed its exam on the international stage.  

After EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell received a public dressing down in Moscow, it was Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s turn to humiliate the union — with a hefty dose of sexism thrown in for good measure. At a meeting in Ankara, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was left standing awkwardly as the Turkish president and Council President Charles Michel took their seats in the two seats that had been made available.  

What made the Turkish president’s affront particularly galling was Michel’s apparent complicity in the game staged by Erdoğan. The two men reflexively taking the seats of honor as if it was the most natural thing in the world provided proof of life for the patriarchy.  

The Council president’s unchivalrous lapsus also offered a glimpse into the internal pecking order between the two EU institutions involved. The Council clearly sees the Commission as subservient, and Michel seemed to have no problem making that clear to the Commission president herself.  

The image of a woman leader being downgraded to sit on a sofa, while the men discuss politics together, is a blow to women and girls worldwide. No number of male leaders wearing “I’m a feminist” T-shirts can cover up the fact that the patriarchal order of things is still alive and kicking.  

Michel’s statement on Facebook, issued 24 hours after the event, and the official presidential tweet about the meeting made clear that there was no mistake, no confusion: This was very much the set up the Council wanted all along.  

All around, the moment turned the visit to Ankara into an unmitigated disaster — especially given the fact that the two EU leaders were there to discuss women’s rights with Turkey’s authoritarian president.  

It was only thanks to von der Leyen that at least a small moral victory was salvaged from this clusterf*ck. The Commission president created a viral moment when she paused and uttered the now famous “Ähm…” when Turkey’s President Erdoğan demoted her to the sofa, with Michel looking on passively.  

Kudos to von der Leyen for keeping her wits in the heat of the moment. It was all she could do at that instance, without the help of her fellow EU president. 

The trouble with von der Leyen is that her utterance is emblematic of her approach to the other members of the European Council: the often-problematic heads of state and government of the EU. 

A simple Ähm just doesn’t cut it when the Commission does — or should — have the power to do something.  

An Ähm toward Warsaw isn’t enough while brave Polish women brave the winter cold in the street as the Polish leaders try to restore patriarchy. An Ähm isn’t sufficient as governments demolish democracy and attack fundamental rights.

It’s not enough to Ähm when officials push back refugees at sea, launch witch hunts against independent judges, harass NGOs or attempt to intimidate journalists. No amount of Ähms can counterbalance efforts to undermine a common, coherent coronavirus strategy or flat refusals to apply EU migration law. 

The reason why our Commission president is not speaking up to EU governments is that she has accepted the demotion of the Commission to something of a secretariat of those very countries. She parked her own institution on the sofa, so to speak.  

The European Parliament, for its part, let it happen, when it failed to stand up for its choice of Commission president in 2019. This was a massive, voluntary transfer of power toward the European Council, with very real consequences — including a Commission that is subordinate to the Council.  

It is not by accident that von der Leyen refuses to apply the “Rule of Law Conditionality Regulation” that would punish governments in Budapest and Warsaw for not adhering to European values — she is merely carrying out the wishes of Michel’s Council.  

Now, the EU’s internal problems are spilling over into its external dealings. The Council — which is itself internally divided — wants to take the lead on the international stage, but it is woefully unsuited for this role. And sadly, a European Commission that chooses to be subservient to the Council is even more so.  

Looking like a fool on the international stage is no joke. It comes at a price. Sofagate laid bare not just deeply rooted sexist reflexes, but also the simple fact that Europe will never become a strong, geopolitical force until it learns to stand up for itself by speaking with a single voice. 





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