Erdogan’s Turkey, a partner as necessary as it is uncomfortable and toxic, has been the scene of the second great setback in European diplomacy so far in 2021 after Borrell’s failed visit to Moscow last February. What seemed like an approach to smooth over rough edges, has ended up stained by the ‘sofagate’ by which the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was left without a chair and relegated to a sofa before the photo of Erdogan himself with the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, noted for his inaction. In the background, the event coincided with the five years of the EU-Turkey migration agreement and the latter’s departure from the Istanbul Convention against sexist violence.
In an interview with Europa Hoy, Popular MEP and former Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo (Madrid, 1944) has analyzed the diplomatic implications of the ‘sofagate’, which Turkey has used to incite the confrontation between leaders, as well as other issues such as the relationship of the EU with the United States of Joe Biden and the situation of the dispute with Gibraltar in the absence of ratification of the Brexit agreement by the European Parliament.
What reading do you make of the ‘sofagate’?
The reading is extraordinarily remarkable diplomatic rudeness on Erdogan’s part. You have to analyze if there is something else behind it. EU-Turkey relations have always been very complicated and at the same time very necessary. Good understanding between the EU and Turkey is essential in many things: not only in the field of security, but also in immigration control. That is if we want to avoid a migratory conflict like the one that occurred a few years ago with the massive displacements from Syria to the Greek islands, mainly, which caused one of the biggest crises in the EU and which remains unresolved because we are unable to find a solution. .
That agreement was based on Turkey’s undertaking to grant asylum to immigrants who had entered the EU clandestinely and illegally, mainly through mafias. He promised to accept their readmission to Turkish territory in exchange for immigrants who came through legal channels. This managed to quell a crisis that came close to destabilizing the EU in general and Greece in particular. In exchange for? In exchange for financial support to attend to the migrants who were forwarded to Turkey, in exchange for accelerating the negotiations on the Turkish candidacy that continues to sleep the sleep of the just, and a visa agreement for the Turks. The latter required changes in the Turkish anti-terrorism law, and Erdogan clearly said that they were not going to touch him because of the Kurdish problem. They complained that they were doing an important service to the EU without receiving adequate compensation.
It appears that Erdogan is mimicking Putin in his tactics to undermine the EU’s external reputation, because Erdogan was not short of chairs when he met Ursula von der Leyen’s predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker.
That is, with Russia. Sends you a message that they are not happy with us. That is why I say that the crisis is much deeper than it seems. If he has done it, it has been consciously and to send a message. I refuse to believe that the Turkish protocol did not know that a president of the European Commission is given the proper treatment. In diplomacy, it doesn’t happen that you take her to a couch. If you have, it is to indicate your annoyance, and if it is true, you have done it in the clumsiest way possible.
The European People’s Party, the most powerful group in the European Parliament, has announced that it will summon Von der Leyen and the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, for the next plenary session. What are they going to say especially to the latter?
That it has to defend the dignity of the European institutions and respect one of the Union’s cardinal principles, which is gender equality and non-discrimination. His has been ‘sustain it and not amend it’. You have not been able to recognize the error and it is the worst thing you could do.
Is Von der Leyen’s valuation and reputation crisis marked by his original sin of leading the Commission after the death of the Spitzenkandidaten process (the winning candidate of the European elections)?
That is a buried and resolved issue. The Spitzenkandidaten was ours: Weber is from the same party, that has nothing to do with it. Another thing is that the popularity of Von der Leyen is not at its best due to the errors in the vaccination, that is another thing, and we will see how that ends …
The leader of the Socialists in the European Parliament, the Spanish Iratxe García, has supported her without reservation, at least on the sofagate.
Man, but how can the Socialist Group not support a woman who has been ignored based on her gender. It would be completely absurd. They have no choice.
That the EU has fallen into the trap of autocrats again calls into question the balance of powers in foreign policy of the European project? Are the times leading to the Commission being given more and more power to the detriment of the Council?
That requires a treaty change. It is one of the pending subjects that the Union has. At the moment, I do not see improvement in this and I see it essential. Unfortunately, foreign policy still has a much more important intergovernmental streak. The Foreign Affairs Council, which is a formation of the Council, is much more important than the Commission in this regard. An attempt has been made to correct with the “double cap” (or “double hat”, that is, the union in a single figure the position of high representative, of the Council, and the Commissioner for Foreign Relations “), but it really remains fundamental competence of Member States. It is one of the things that we have to advance.
Is it possible to suspect that High Representative Josep Borrell did not attend after the “humiliation” of his visit to Moscow?
No, that is giving height to the mission.
Is it a coincidence that the Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi was the leader who has been the most forceful in the condemnation to the point of risking his first diplomatic crisis?
Draghi is a heavyweight in European politics. As president of the European Central Bank he is extremely well regarded in Brussels, and that has made it easier for the Italian parties to make him prime minister. He is a first division character. Draghi is one of the characters that I admire the most.
Does the Commission need a first division leader a la Draghi?
No, Von der Leyen’s vaccination campaign has not gone well and that has determined that his popularity is now lower. It would be completely irresponsible to provoke a crisis in the Commission now.
After the image crises in Russia and Turkey, is the EU in a position to maintain this pulse with China or at least its change of tone towards Beijing?
Diplomacy always has a double language. For example, what Putin does in Russia. Probably the one that has most condemned Russia’s domestic politics has been Germany. However, what Germany has reached has been an agreement with Russia to establish a gas pipeline that goes directly from Russia to Germany. Condemnation, on the one hand, but close relations on the other. In diplomacy things are never black or white. China is absolutely obvious that it is both an indispensable partner and a very dangerous competitor. The arrival of Biden is not going to change that perception. For the US, China remains the competitor. This competition takes place in many areas: technology (5G, Huawei), the use of vaccines as a political weapon, the silk road … What is going to change is the way of approaching it. Trump was very much in favor of approaching it unilaterally, and Biden is seeking an EU collaboration to tackle the problem together. And I think that is the right thing to do.
So, are you already noticing the change in EU-US relations? with Biden?
Absolutely. Trump was a declared enemy of the EU, what he always sought was the weakening of the EU.
And is the regulation of the tech giants still a major stumbling block in that transatlantic relationship?
The United States has signaled that it wants to advance in this area. That has also changed. It is the principle that large multinationals, in this case digital ones, pay taxes wherever their activities and profits are located. It is already being dealt with in the OECD, in the US … We are all in agreement. Another thing is how it is implemented, eh?
The great powers seem determined to pursue tax competition. BIden itself has presented its plan for a minimum global corporate tax. Taking into account the case of Gibraltar -the subject on which Garcia-Margallo has just published the book ‘Gibraltar. The second surrender ‘together with Fernando Eguidazu (former secretary of state for the EU) – how does this change in trend affect Spain? How do you assess this double message of concern about tax evasion and at the same time your treatment of Gibraltar?
It is good for Spain, taking into account this pre-agreement that the government of Spain has reached with the United Kingdom, and that attempt by the government to exclude Gibraltar from the tax haven catalog when it has not changed at all: it still does not have VAT, taxes on tobacco, alcohol and oil, being the headquarters of companies that do not pay taxes on profits. Alfredo (Pérez Rubalcaba) always told me: “Look, that thing about the flag and sovereignty does not put children on them, it is an old-fashioned issue, but it does put the issue of tax evasion on them.” It is not understood that a government, which is so scandalized by what is happening in Switzerland or the Panama papers, has signed an agreement that allows Gibraltar to continue being a tax haven to the detriment of the Spanish and community coffers. At the moment, Gibraltar is a Spaniard who does not pay taxes; you live in Gibraltar, but you can have your home on the Costa del Sol; You have access to Spanish health care but you do not make the income tax return. The other big question: what company is going to establish itself in the Campo de Gibraltar if it can do so in Gibraltar, being able to access the Internal Market without paying taxes? That is if you want to develop the Campo de Gibraltar and that it is not always a precarious economy.
To conclude, in this month that the period for the presentation of the recovery plans ends, how is the Madrid campaign and episodes such as Vallecas being seen from Brussels?
In Brussels it is not understood that there are socialists and communists within the government. The alarms went off when Pablo Iglesias says that Spain is not a consolidated democracy at a time when compliance with the rule of law for the granting of European funds is being discussed, in the case of Hungary and Poland, so it is not understood what what are you doing.