Lingering tension between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel apparently spilled over as the two EU leaders met at Commission HQ in Brussels on Monday, reported Politico.
All eyes were on the first public encounter between the officials since the notorious Ankara seating incident last Tuesday, dubbed "sofagate" on social media.
Both sides’ readouts after the Monday face-off offered precious little details other than that the two presidents had focused on “topical issues,” with “constructive” discussions underscored.
However, the two teams reportedly failed to completely bury the hatchet.
As the two EU top officials face the daunting challenges of managing the coronavirus pandemic and hammering out the EU’s budget and recovery plans, the Ankara blunder took precedence, writes the outlet.
‘Pecking Order’ Spat
The seating scandal that marred the EU officials’ visit to Ankara last week was believed to have laid bare existing “pecking order” tensions between both the EU’s top leaders and their institutions.
The unfortunate incident happened on 6 April, when European Council President Charles Michel and Ursula Ursula von der Leyen on der Leyen arrived in Ankara to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, only to see there were just two chairs set up in front of the Turkish and EU flags in the meeting room.
Reminiscent of a game of musical chairs, the two nimble-footed men made a bee-line for the chairs, leaving a seemingly exasperated European Commission president with no choice but to park her backside on the sofa.
The first female president of the European Commission was left sitting opposite Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who is considered beneath her in diplomatic order of precedence.
European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer was subsequently quick to point out that on der Leyen should have been treated "exactly in the same manner" as Michel. According to the official, she was "clearly surprised" by the incident.
The two men who bagged the stately chairs both came under a barrage of criticism.
Erdogan was slammed for ostensibly trying to divide the two leaders, while also disrespecting the female president.
Turkish officials dismissed the claims, vowing they had simply followed protocol.
Michel came under fire for his perceived complicity in allowing von der Leyen to be treated in such a manner. Following the meeting on 12 April, a European Commission official said that “the president made clear that she will never allow such a situation to arise again.”
Ahead of the Monday encounter aimed at soothing frayed nerves, von der Leyen’s head of cabinet, Björn Seibert, was cited as having proposed clarifying treaty rules on the "preeminence of EU institutions" and promoting equal representation on foreign visits.
However, a Council official responded by quashing the floated move, writes Politico, emphasising that changing rules or treaties should be dealt with in an appropriate format. A potential venue for addressing the matter could be the imminent Conference on the Future of Europe.
Overall, many have been reflecting on the incident as laying bare the battle between two Brussels institutions for more influence on the international stage.
Indeed, the two bodies are inherently tasked with different roles. The Commission is the EU’s executive, while the Council represents national leaders.
Nevertheless, diplomats were cited as considering the recent episode as extraordinary.
One EU diplomat reportedly said he had “rarely seen such a level of animosity” between the two institutions. He warned that it risked “damaging our [external] action and it’s hard to understand, not only for ordinary citizens.”
Still other EU diplomats scathingly marvelled at how the two institutions were spending so much time on the "sofagate" issue.
“Lucky is the organisation that has the leisure to devote so much time and energy on protocol issues,” said the diplomat.