Turkey blames EU for 'sofagate' scandal
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and EU Council President Charles Michel occupy the chairs as President of EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen remains standing at the Presidential Complex in Ankara. AFP
Turkey on Thursday blamed Brussels 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 as she spread her arms in wonder and looked 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. "The demands and suggestions of the EU side were met and the proper protocol applied."
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 visible discomfort.
But he blamed it on 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 criticism "unfair".
"The meetings -- especially in Turkey -- are held within the framework of international protocol rules and Turkish hospitality," he 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 the mixup happened because the European Commission never sent a preparatory team to Ankara.
"These are internal organisational matters," Eric Mamer told reporters.
"President (von der Leyen) simply wishes that these questions be analysed so that we do not face the same types of questions in our next mission."