Charles Michel is no stranger to awkward situations in front of the press, and he seems to take them in his stride. When he was Prime minister, himself the son of a Prime Minister, in 2014 he was sprayed and splattered with mayonnaise and chips during a press conference, an act perpetrated as protest of his economic policies. He stood there smiling nonchalantly, lethargic even, as he was being splattered.
Perhaps it was that kind of nonchalance that was on display when Charles Michel comfortably sunk into the armchair that was set out for him in front of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan at their meeting in Ankara. Once he sat there and was cozy, he looked around and seemed entirely non-flustered and indifferent to the fact that his colleague and co-President of the EU, Ursula von der Leyen was left there standing with nowhere to sit – an obvious intentional humiliation. Erdogan seemed all too satisfied, and Michel seemed all too ready to move ahead with his buddy sitting there with him. VDL was left to mutter “ehm” as she squirmed about what to do, and was relegated to the sideline sofa.
This little SofaGate incident encapsulates so many of the intersecting dangerous dysfunctions Europe faces, and that are worth unpacking. Not because that particular incident itself is so groundchanging, but because it reveals so clearly what is already taking place.
Gender equality is one of the most critical and urgent social and political issues of our time, and day to day sexism is a fact of life, presenting many shades and faces. Toxic masculinity, the need for men to prove themselves by being seen as “more powerful”, more dominant, angrier and more aggressive than their peers, is one of the most destructive forces in human history, and only now is it beginning to be acknowledged. It is up to men to take on their responsibility, and act to get rid of sexism and macho behaviours, because they are the ones perpetrating those.
The scene at SofaGate shows us two distinct faces of sexism.
On one hand Erdogan displayed his brute angry macho misogyny. Clearly, being photographed as an equal to a powerful woman was a problem for him. Clearly, this was an opportunity for him to embarrass and humiliate European leaders, and to provoke and enrage a bunch of ‘woke liberals’ – so off we go.
On the other hand, Charles Michel demonstrated the kind of casual off the cuff sexism of dominant men who remain unbothered by the reality of sexism, and do not take the time to care or even notice it. First of all, he takes his seat and gets settled. Then, he looks around and he may or may not be noticing who has been left out in the cold. Then, even as he has noticed, he decides it is not up to him to do anything about it.
Solidarity and unity are core values of the European Union. EU national governments come together around common interests and invest powers in the Presidents of the Commission and Council to represent them together. Often, sensible, necessary and urgent decisions that Europe needs get blocked up because national leaders fail to show solidarity with each other, and this failure then does damage to European citizens across the continent. Often, regional and global powers around Europe can take advantage of Europeans when the EU fails to act. The situation with Turkey demonstrates this quite clearly: we are dealing here with an authoritarian government that violates human rights, puts prisoners, lawyers, judges and human rights defenders in prison, commits war crimes against ethnic minorities on its territory, and regularly uses refugees as a bargaining chip against the EU. The lack of solidarity and unity among Member States when meeting with Turkish leaders, then enables Erdogan to maintain an inhumane and abusive relationship at the expense of the European tax payer, while refugees drown in the Aegean sea.
How can Europeans be asked to show solidarity with one another, how can national leaders be urged to find compromise, if the President of the European Council cannot express solidarity with the President of the Commission? Charles Michel left Ursula von der Leyen out in the cold to fend for herself. And while yes, it may be that she could have responded differently, what we should have seen is a clear, unified European response. Both EU Presidents should have had the presence of mind to simply say “This is a meeting for 3 Presidents all together. We will be outside waiting for you to bring another chair in. Thank you.”
That kind of response would have demonstrated a commitment to equality and inclusion, and would have demonstrated the power of the European Union when it acts with unity and solidarity, and with respect to its most fundamental values.