Turkey blames EU for 'sofagate' scandal

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) and European Council President Charles Michel (centre) seated themselves while European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen was left standing.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) and European Council President Charles Michel (centre) seated themselves while European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen was left standing.PHOTO: AFP/TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE

ISTANBUL (AFP) - Turkey on Wednesday (April 7) blamed the European Union for seating arrangements that left European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen without a chair during a meeting with Turkish 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 Dr 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 Dr 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 on Thursday 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 demands and suggestions of the EU side were met and the proper protocol applied during the meeting," he said.

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 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.

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

The European Council President broke nearly a full day of silence on Wednesday by writing on Facebook that he realised that the scene gave "the impression that I was oblivious to this situation".

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

The two EU leaders "chose not to worsen it by making a public incident", Mr Michel wrote.

"I am sad that this situation eclipsed the major and beneficial geopolitical work that we carried out together in Ankara, and of which I hope Europe will reap the benefits."

Dr von der Leyen herself used a post-summit press conference to stress that she had a detailed 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".

But Mr Cavusoglu said Turkey knew perfectly how to follow diplomatic protocol and was simply complying with the instructions of a planning delegation sent by Brussels.

"Turkey is a well-established state that hosts guests often and at every level," he said.

"The meetings - especially in Turkey - are held within the frame of international protocol rules and Turkish hospitality."