Let’s Stop Talking About A Seat At the Table
On 6 April, representatives of the European Union met with the President of Turkey, to discuss several pressing political matters. The EU representatives were Charles Michel, President of the EU Council President, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission.
But at the meeting with Recep Erdogan, President of Turkey, only one EU President got at seat at the table.
Both Presidents hold equal diplomatic rank, and both Presidents represent the EU on the world stage. Hosting the two Presidents in Ankara, Erdogan led Michel and von der Leyen into the room where the meeting was to take place, furnished with only two chairs at a ceremonial table, and flanked by two sofas situated some distance away from the table. Seemingly forgetting that von der Leyen was even in the room, Michel and Erdogan claimed the chairs at the table, relegating von der Leyen to perch on one of the sofas, facing Erdogan for the entire meeting.
The diplomatic insult was clear on many levels: in an attempt to demoralize her, von der Leyen was publicly demoted and her value as a diplomat undermined. Erdogan did not want her at the table.
While the gesture was shocking, it was also not that surprising. Turkey recently withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, a 2011 human rights treaty aimed at prevention of violence against women, stating that the agreement questions traditional gender roles and is “very wrong.”
Despite the gross powerplay that opened it, the meeting in Ankara went forward as planned, with von der Leyen addressing Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention from her seat on the sofa clear across the room (no doubt having to raise her voice to cover the distance and participate in the discussion at all, no doubt having to shout to be heard… and no doubt leading the two men to describe her as “angry” or “aggressive” because she was “shouting” or that her voice hurt their ears).
The snub at the opening of the meeting was caught on video, and has caused a kerfuffle in European media, and a deepening rift between the EU and Turkey. The Council President, Charles Michel, claims that he has been losing sleep over the terrible incident and wishes he could go back and fix it (but alas! that’s [conveniently] impossible) — implying that somehow we should feel sorry for him because he’s suffering so much guilt over being an asshole that he can’t get a good night’s sleep.
He even posted on Facebook that he wasn’t in fact, being an asshole: while it looked like he was “oblivious” in the moment, in reality he was being diplomatic: “while realizing the regrettable nature of the situation, we decided not to make matters worse by creating a scene.’’
Members of the EU Council in Belgium, as well as of Erdogan’s own administration in Turkey, have defended the insult by stating that Erdogan was following a too literal and “strict interpretation’’ of protocol rules, implying that it was all just a cultural misinterpretation.
Two days later, the European Parliament called for a public debate on the situation in order to get to the bottom of it, with Michel and von der Leyen to testify by the end of April.
So that escalated quickly. But is this really what we should be getting angry about?
For readers who aren’t familiar with the EU political structure, here’s a quick overview:
The European Union is made up of 27 member nations. The Presidency of the European Union is a rotating position that is held by a member nation. Currently, it is held by Portugal. The governing body of the EU is made up of the EU Council, the EU Commission, and the EU Parliament.
The Council is a collegiate body that defines the overall political directions and priorities of the EU. The Council is made up of all the heads of EU member nations, as well as the EU Commission. The President of this body is appointed by members of the Council.
The Commission is the executive branch of the EU, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU. The President of this body is elected by the EU Parliament.
The President of the Commission, the President of the European Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy collectively represent the EU abroad, and each hold equal diplomatic rank.
Turkey is not a member of the EU, although it has been applying for membership since 1987; however, progress has stalled or even regressed since 2016, with some EU member states citing a lack of compatibility between Turkish and EU values. Erdogan was elected President of Turkey in 2014 and has become increasingly authoritarian, citing Nazi Germany as a good example of a single-party system with a strong executive leader.
In Ninjutsu, the martial art I practice, there is a position called Doko no kamae, a stance that opens an attack. In this position, the practitioner starts from a traditional kamae or stance, with 60% of body weight shifted to the back to the right foot, the left arm extended directly forward. The difference from our traditional kamae is that the right hand — normally open, and hovering over the heart — is closed in a fist and positioned near the right temple, as though cocked and ready to strike.
The purpose of this kamae — like so many techniques in Ninjutsu — is to distract. While in this posture, your opponent is focused on the obvious threat: your clenched fist, raised and ready to strike. They’re so focused on the right hand, they don’t know what the left hand is doing.
But it is the left hand that you strike with, not only sneaking in a close shot, but also catching your opponent completely off guard.
Setting aside all the various layers of ridiculous and childish behavior (really? the President of the EU Council is posting about this on Facebook?! Is he 12???) all of the hand-wringing and righteous indignation by the European Union government function as distractions from what’s truly worrying about this entire incident: the actions of the President of the EU Council.
The fact that the President of the EU Council — who has the power to directly affect the lives of millions of people — scurried to sit with a misogynistic, racist, homophobic and increasingly far-right authoritarian rather than side with the President from his own Council is the real cause for concern. The EU Parliament want Michel to justify his sexist actions, but doesn’t seem to be concerned about his willingness to sit with Erdogan in the first place.
Because even if Michel’s statement about not wanting to “make matters worse by creating a scene” is true, his actions indicate someone who is more concerned with currying the favor of a dictator than standing up for one of his own; someone who is more focused on nabbing a seat at that tiny, exclusive table, rather than including his own colleague by demanding a bigger table or pulling up another chair.
I can’t help but feel that Michel’s actions — and the actions of the EU Parliament demanding a[n unnecessary] debate — are more clearly reflected in the EU’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis than they are indications of sexism.
So much of workplace harassment is about engineering environments that are so toxic, they push targeted people out. But I think we don’t go deep enough when we ask why: it’s accepted that the people who engage in this behavior are most likely racists, or misogynistic, homophobic or bigoted (can we just encapsulate that a single work, like intolerant?), but why do they want to push away capable, talented, willing workers? What kind of strange capitalism is that? Is it really that they don’t want to share with others? Or is it that they don’t want others to see what they’re actually getting up to?
While the incident in Ankara has blown up into a political circus, we’re focused on a superficial accountability. Whether it’s in international politics or in a start-up, it’s important to ask, while we’re focused on the righteous fist of the right hand, what is the left hand doing?
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