EU, Turkey trade barbs over 'sofagate' blunder

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen left standing as European Council president Charles Michel (centre) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took the two seats in the room at their meeting on Tuesday.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen left standing as European Council president Charles Michel (centre) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took the two seats in the room at their meeting on Tuesday.PHOTO: REUTERS

ISTANBUL • Turkey has blamed the EU for seating arrangements that left European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen without a chair during a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Mr Erdogan and Turkish officials came under a torrent of criticism after images went viral of his meeting on Tuesday with Ms von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel in Ankara.

The well-appointed room which the three leaders entered had only two chairs arranged next to the corresponding EU and Turkish flags.

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

"Ehm," she said pointedly, while appearing to spread her arms in wonder. Official images later showed her seated on a sofa opposite one taken by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Mr Cavusoglu said yesterday that criticism levelled against Turkey for the diplomatic blunder was "unfair". "The seating arrangements were made in line with the EU suggestion. Period. We would not be revealing this fact had accusations not been made against Turkey," Mr Cavusoglu told reporters.

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 meeting was aimed at setting a more positive tone to relations after months of trouble on multiple fronts. But it ended with European officials accusing Turkey - which last month withdrew from the landmark Istanbul convention combating gender-based violence - of male chauvinism.

"First, they withdraw from the Istanbul convention and now they leave the president of the European Commission without a seat in an official visit. Shameful. #WomensRights," wrote Spanish European Parliament member Iratxe Garcia Perez.

Mr Michel blamed it on a "protocol blunder" by Turkey that he and Ms von der Leyen decided to overlook at the time. Ms von der Leyen herself stressed that she had a discussion with Mr Erdogan about women's rights. "I am deeply worried about the fact that Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul convention," she said. European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said the incident had "sharpened her focus on the issue".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2021, with the headline 'EU, Turkey trade barbs over 'sofagate' blunder'. Subscribe