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EU Leaders Should Chance Sitting on the Floor Next Time

The world was focused on Turkey, especially on the EU presidents’ meeting with Erdogan. The world now discusses the incident occurred when the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was not given a chair in a billion-dollar extravagant palace full of gilded seats despite the fact she was an indispensable part of an official EU delegation. No doubt, she and her colleagues must have been irked by this diplomatically- unethical and inappropriate treatment meted out especially to a woman during that much-anticipated meeting.

No different than myself, many people from different walks of life have criticized the European Council President Charles Michel for not showing any empathy for Ursula von der Leyen or looking into the matter to become the part of the solution. I will not discuss the issue here by approaching the matter merely as a gender-based issue. Yet, we all know from Erdogan’s political playbook what he thinks about women. On March 20, Erdogan had withdrawn Turkey from the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty of the Council of Europe which was put to signature on May 11, 2011, in Istanbul, Turkey for preventing violence against women in domestic and public sphere. Erdogan had stolen the limelight worldwide once again with this move of renunciation.

On April 6, two EU presidents arrived in Turkey for an official visit, and one scene during the entire meeting was indelibly imprinted in memories. In that scene, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was not given a chair and was relegated to sit on a sofa across the Turkish Foreign Minister, in a manner that meant an insult to her diplomatic position. I also observed that European Council President Charles Michel had walked a little swiftly to claim the only second chair available in the reception hall, not to become the one who had to sit across the Turkish FM. Was that normal a procedure? By no means. I think what the Turkish authorities had done only by placing another chair next to Erdogan’s was grossly inappropriate; however, I do not wish to believe the palace officials of the Erdogan regime had intentionally targeted Ursula von der Leyen. During that “game of diplomatic musical chairs”, Michel’s quick move denied her of the only guest chair in the room.

EC President Charles Michel could have been much more concerned for his cohort, but he seemed to have failed on the spur of that moment. That scene would not be forgotten easily as it caught the global attention and proved to be one of the most viral topics discussed and shared on the social media. Erdogan also did not sense any abnormality and seemed quite content during the incident. This showed that the Erdogan regime had wished to make one of the EU presidents sit on the sofa in any case. The photo session kicked in as if nothing had happened with two male leaders sitting on the chairs. Once those images and videos went online, they also went viral.

Those two EU leaders hardly confronted Erdogan and predominantly opted for turning a dead eye on Turkey’s human rights violations since the ‘failed’ coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Long story short, Erdogan played the lucrative ‘Syrian refugees’ card compellingly against the EU-member countries and conciliated them thus. Erdogan had learned he could threaten the EU with refugees at any time as he had done it many times in the near past. Once, he said Turkey would open its borders and urge the refugees to cross into Europe through Greece. After that call, multitudes of Syrian refugees swarmed the border with expectations of passage to Europe.

Erdogan had also used the Mediterranean conflict in the same manner to threaten the EU over Greece. It seems he has been pretty successful. There may be several other reasons, but the EU remains silent against the Erdogan regime’s human rights violations and the utter collapse of the democratic institutions in Turkey.  The EU does this to protect its member states from the volatility of Erdogan’s dictatorial temperament in the face of a constant refugee crisis. However, it also commits a gross mistake by passing positive remarks about Erdogan’s despotic regime.

Days before she came to Turkey, President Ursula von der Leyen had tweeted, “Given Turkey’s more constructive attitude recently, we are ready to engage in areas of joint interest such as migration and customs.” She said Turkey’s most constructive attitude recently manifested itself by its positive approach towards the Syrian refugee crisis and the Mediterranean Sea conflict. Could these two motives really serve as the reasons why the EU has green-lighted a country like Turkey, where numerous and significant human rights issues are committed, without mentioning the critical milestones of how the Erdogan regime founded and has sustained a state of fear with its inhumane and arbitrary practices, including torture, target killings, abductions, imprisonment of the political opponents, lawyers, students, and journalists and human rights activists?

After the meeting, von der Leyen tweeted, “Turkey has shown interest in re-engaging with the EU in a constructive way.” While she was in Turkey and busy meeting with Erdogan, the Erdogan government was most likely making hundreds of additional plans to further derogate the human rights, freeze the assets of additional hundreds of opposition figures, and seeking to know where else they can find more reasons for silencing the dissent. Unfortunately, such ‘internal matters’ do not matter much for the EU leaders as long as Erdogan keeps his promises and provides shelter to the existing refugees without causing any fuss for the EU. For the record, von der Leyen also remarked in her tweet thread that they agreed on many issues on condition that “Turkey must respect international human rights rules and standards to which it committed.” No matter how much I forced the limits of my goodwill, I simply have not been able to find this comment sincere by any means.  

EU leaders currently take the flak for acting half-heartedly against the Erdogan regime. Most likely, they wanted to appear stronger against Erdogan by making those comments in the wake of the April 6 visit. However, Erdogan blatantly and practically showed them what his attitude would be if the EU distanced itself from his politics and criticized him. This time Erdogan made one of the EU leaders sit on a sofa but not in a chair. The next time, if they jar, he may make them sit on the floor notwithstanding the ‘overwhelming luxury’ of his White Palace, about which he boasts by saying, “you simply would not save on reputation”.

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Engin Yigit is a Politurco columnist, activist, and author. Follow him at @enginyigtt.

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