‘Sofagate’ scandal: Turkey, EU blame each other in leaders’ seating screw-up

Fulya Ozerkan, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Apr 09 2021 01:20 AM

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stands as European Council President Charles Michel and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan take seats in Ankara, Turkey April 6, 2021, in this screengrab obtained by Reuters. European Union via Reuters TV

Turkey and the EU blamed each other on Thursday for seating arrangements that left European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen without a chair during a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Turkish leader came under a torrent of criticism after images went viral of his Tuesday meeting with von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel in Ankara.

The room where the three leaders were hosted had only two chairs arranged next to the corresponding EU and Turkish flags.

Erdogan and Michel quickly seated themselves while von der Leyen -- whose diplomatic rank is the same as that of the two men -- was left standing.

"Ehm," she said, spreading her arms in wonder and looking directly at Michel and Erdogan.

Official images later showed her seated on a sofa opposite Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

"The seating arrangements were made in line with the EU suggestion. Period," he said in the first public statement by a Turkish official on the episode.

"We would not be revealing this fact had accusations not been made against Turkey," Cavusoglu told reporters.

But Michel's European Council said its protocol team had been denied advance access to the meeting room where the three leaders first sat down for talks.

"If the room for the tete-a-tete had been visited, we would have suggested to our hosts that, as a courtesy, they replace the sofa with two armchairs for the President of the Commission," the protocol team said in a letter.

- 'Turkish hospitality' -

The diplomatic faux pas was instantly branded "sofagate" on Twitter and became the dominant talking point of the first Turkey-EU summit in a year.

The three leaders had been trying to set a more positive tone to relations after months of spats.

But the talks ended with European officials throwing accusations of male chauvinism at Turkey that they linked to Erdogan's withdrawal a month earlier from the Istanbul Convention against gender-based violence.

"First they withdraw from the Istanbul Convention and now they leave the President of European Commission without a seat in an official visit. Shameful," wrote Spanish MEP Iratxe Garcia Perez. 

Many also questioned why Michel was so quick to take a seat.

The European Council president broke nearly a full day of silence by acknowledging on Facebook that the episode made him look "oblivious" to von der Leyen's discomfort.

But he blamed a "protocol blunder" by Turkey that he and von der Leyen decided to overlook at the time.

"We decided not to make matters worse by creating a scene," Michel wrote.

Cavusoglu called this line of criticism "unfair".

"The meetings -- especially in Turkey -- are held within the frameworks of international protocol rules and Turkish hospitality," Cavusoglu said.

- 'Symbol of disunity' -

The episode came with the European Union's leadership under mounting pressure over the bloc's slow coronavirus inoculation effort and strains emerging between the 27 member states.

Several European Parliament groups demanded an investigation into how von der Leyen was left standing while Michel took a seat.

"The setting for this meeting does not seem to be based on order of precedence... but rather by a male-chauvinist way of representation of an autocrat," Belgian European Parliament member Assita Kanko wrote in a formal question to Michel.

The conservative EPP grouping's leader Manfred Weber told Politico the trip to Ankara had become "a symbol of disunity" between the EU's top officials.

And French far-right leader Marine Le Pen called the entire visit a bad idea because it showed the bloc "lying down before a hostile" Erdogan.

Von der Leyen's spokesman meanwhile refused to be drawn on speculation that none of this would have happened had the European Commission followed the European Council's example and sent a protocol team to Ankara.

"President (von der Leyen) simply wishes that these questions be analysed so that we do not face the same types of questions on our next mission," Eric Memer told reporters.

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