Global Europe Brief: Looking beyond the sofa

Your weekly update on the EU from the global perspective.

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Three presidents, two chairs… The Ankara incident has created another headache for the EU to deal with after a series of unfortunate foreign policy events in the past few months.

Diplomatic seating arrangements are not made by chance or ‘an accident’, they’re an exertion of power.

A failure to provide an equal seat to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is a symbol of Erdogan’s game towards Brussels and the state of women’s rights in Turkey in general.

And yes, as a woman working on foreign, defence and security policy, it irked me to see, yet again, a female leader sidelined like this.

Too often, we still have to suffer the humiliation of not receiving a chair, figuratively or otherwise, at the discussion table, on a panel or during press conferences.

There are so many things the hapless European Council President Charles Michel and the EU’s protocol delegation could and should have done to avoid this mess.

Several European Parliament groups have demanded an investigation into how von der Leyen was left standing while Michel took a seat, calling for a plenary debate with both leaders later this month.

But moral outrage without addressing the fundamental problems – a characteristic reaction of those in Brussels’ institutions – will achieve nothing.

“I don’t think that Ms. von der Leyen has to justify why she wasn’t given a chair,” MEP Sergey Lagodinsky, who is part of the European Parliament’s delegation to the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, told EURACTIV.

Instead, the debate should be about the specific goals of the visit, whether they have been met and whether those goals and achievements correspond to the expectations of the EU and the European Parliament.


Unfortunately, ‘Sofa-Gate’ has become yet another allegory for the growing pains of EU foreign policy – and this ‘geopolitical Commission’ – after last year’s mishaps with Russia, China, Belarus, to name but a few.

“This was a flagrant demonstration that we are an international actor, but one who cannot get their act together – and that’s the deadliest recipe you can have in diplomacy,” Lagodisky said.

Analysts didn’t mince their words either.

Borrell’s Moscow trip and this week’s trip to Ankara by von der Leyen and Michel have highlighted some of the challenges that EU leaders face when representing the EU on the world stage.

“These challenges are partly due to the EU’s institutional structure, but they are mainly due to the fact that, in foreign and security policy, the EU’s ability to act effectively depends on the ability of the 27 member states to agree on what the EU should do – and this is becoming frustratingly difficult,” Niklas Novaky, a research officer for EU security and defence policy at the Wilfried Martens Centre in Brussels, told EURACTIV.


IRAN TALKS. Iran and world powers held what they described as “constructive” talks and agreed to form working groups to discuss the sanctions Washington might lift and the nuclear curbs Tehran might observe as they try to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel would not be bound to a nuclear deal between world powers and Iran if it would enable the Islamic republic to develop nuclear weapons.

INDIGENOUS INJUSTICE. Colonial-era policies in northern Scandinavia continue to affect Sámi life, culture and land use. Meanwhile, truth commissions are being set up and aim to investigate injustices against Indigenous people carried out by Scandinavian states. The process, Sámi representatives told EURACTIV, negatively affects Sami languages, education and way of life until today.

MERCOSUR DEAL. Ireland has said it thinks it is “unlikely” that the EU-Mercosur trade agreement will be concluded during the Portuguese EU Council presidency and has insisted on guarantees that deforestation of the Amazon will be halted.

DEBT SERVICE. Developing countries stand to benefit from up to $10 billion in savings after the G20 group of wealthy nations announced that it would extend its debt service suspension initiative (DSSI) which launched last May until the end of this year.


NATO REQUEST. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on NATO to lay out a path for Ukraine to join the Western military alliance, after days in which Russia has massed troops near the conflict-hit Donbas region.

In turn, Russia’s foreign ministry has said that Ukraine‘s accession to NATO would lead to a “large-scale escalation” of the war in Donbas and “irreversible consequences for Ukrainian statehood”, the Kremlin’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.

RUSSIAN THREAT. The conflict in eastern Ukraine has threatened to escalate over the troop movements near the border and pro-Kremlin media raising the spectre of war. The US European Command went into high alert in light of the Russian troop movements and are monitoring the situation closely, sources told EURACTIV.

Russian officials have been warning that Russia’s hand might be forced if separatists in Donbas are attacked by Ukrainian troops, though many security experts fear that this could be taken as a pretext for intervention, with some experts already speculating over where such a scenario could be played out.

OLD AND NEW. A hijacked bus set on fire, masked youths rioting on the streets and throwing home-made bombs – violence familiar from Northern Ireland’s troubled past has returned this week fuelled by concerns over Brexit and COVID-19 grievances. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been urged to convene all-party talks on Northern Ireland after several nights of riots in the province this week left more than 70 police officers injured.

INDUSTRY PACT. The two companies leading the tri-national Future Combat Air System (FCAS) effort have completed a deal on the program’s next-generation fighter aircraft. Airbus and Dassault reached an agreement that removed “the main obstacle” to launching the demonstrator portion of the fighter program and intellectual property rights and workshare agreements between French, German, and Spanish industries, the French Senate’s foreign affairs and defence committee said in a communiqué.


OLYMPIC COORDINATION. The United States this week said that it is looking to discuss with partners and allies how to proceed with participation in the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in a coordinated way, amid growing calls for a boycott of the Games over China’s human rights record. However, the US State Department denied that it was discussing a joint boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.


UIGHUR GENOCIDE. After Brussels moved to impose sanctions on China in March, Beijing retaliated by targeting four Lithuanian politicians among more than a dozen European diplomats and officials. Now, despite direct pressure on Lithuanian MPs, Vilnius is planning to recognise China’s repression against Uighurs as genocide.

Chinese President Xi Jinping told German leader Angela Merkel during a phone call this week he hoped Europe would “make positive efforts with China”, Chinese state media reported, following an international row over the treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.



Europe’s everyday business is still stuck in lockdown reality, until further notice. We’ll keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as we enter a busy spring period.

  • European Parliament’s AFET Committee
    | Mo-Tue, 12-13 April 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
  • Greek foreign minister goes Turkey to discuss EastMed
    | Wednesday, 14 April 2021 | Ankara, Turkey
  • US Secretary of Defense visits NATO
    | Wednesday, 14 April 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
  • European Parliament’s SEDE Committee
    | We-Thu, 14-15 April 2021 | Brussels, Belgium

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[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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