It was a funny yet telling moment. Two of the EU’s presidents, the Commission’s Ursula von der Leyen and the Council’s Charles Michel, turned up last week for a summit with the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Spotting that there was only one armchair next to the Turkish leader’s, Michel didn’t hesitate: he accelerated toward the empty seat and heaved himself into it, leaving von der Leyen opening and closing her mouth helplessly.
Not since a crusader knight boorishly sat on the Byzantine emperor’s throne in Constantinople in 1096 has that part of the world seen such a row about chairs. It may be an almost opéra bouffe episode but, contemplating it, we descry several things. We see the EU’s preoccupation with tiny questions of status and etiquette, an obsession that grows as its popularity dwindles. We see the way in which utility is sacrificed to the need to find jobs for the boys: there were, at the last count, no fewer than seven EU presidents, but not even the most deranged FBPE fanatic claims that the EU is seven times more effective in consequence.
We see, too, that the first instinct of the Eurocrat is to accuse others. Stung by the charge that he had behaved badly, the former Belgian PM immediately blamed the Turks for not providing enough chairs. This claim is not credible: officials from the two sides always agree these details in advance. As Turkey’s Anglophile foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, later confirmed: “The EU side’s requests were met: the seating arrangement was made according to their suggestions. Our protocol units came together previously and their demands were accommodated.”
Without wishing to rub it in, Michel has form when it comes to waving false accusations about. He has still not retracted his outrageous claim that Britain is limiting the export of vaccines – something that, as he well knows, Britain is not doing, but the EU is.
Finally, there is the whole question (almost completely overlooked in the amused reaction to the musical chairs) of the shaky relations between Brussels and Ankara, which are currently defined by the former paying the latter to hold refugees back. Turkey, which for half a century built its foreign policy around getting closer to Europe, has concluded that the EU matters less than it used to, and is seeking to broaden its foreign policy orientation.
All in all, then, the summit represented several things: the EU’s Gormenghast-like obsession with ritual, a characteristic of many fading powers; the absurdity of having a plethora of presidents; the shockingly undiplomatic behaviour of the President of the European Council; and the way in which Turkey is, quite understandably, stepping back from its relationship with an unreliable neighbour.
The one thing we can’t see in the episode is the thing that virtually every commentator and politician purports to find in it, namely male chauvinism. Columnists and MEPs have scrambled to condemn Michel’s behaviour as sexist. But that is the wrong word.
A more accurate adjective would be “uncouth” or “ungallant” or “unchivalrous”. The trouble is that we no longer use such language. Instead, we use “sexist” as a catch-all description for any behaviour towards women of which we disapprove. But, if you think about it, Michel’s behaviour here was the opposite of sexist.
I like to think that, in his position, I would have stood back and let von der Leyen take the bigger chair. That would have been more courteous option, but also the more sexist, because I would have been treating Ursula von der Leyen differently purely on grounds of her sex. The technical precedence that the Council President has over the Commission President when outside the EU would have given way to the older rule that a man should offer his seat to a woman.
Older still, though, is the rule that guests should not abuse their hospitality. In lashing out at his hosts, Michel has behaved very like that Frankish crusader in 1096 who, to cover his embarrassment at his initial faux-pas, started vainly boasting about his military prowess. (He died in battle soon afterwards.)
One thing I learned in 21 years in Brussels is that the weaker a state, the touchier its leaders. If I saw a cavalcade of Mercedes and dozens of fawning officials, it almost always indicated the presence of an insecure dictator. The EU is increasingly placing itself in this category: prickly about protocol, feeble in foreign policy. Why would anyone want to host its leaders?
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