EU-Turkey in blame game over ‘sofagate’ after von der Leyen left standing

Turkey and Europe are trading blame over who left the European Commission chief on her feet, in a spat over protocol that has prompted charges of sexism and overshadowed a critical meeting.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, was caught off guard when European Council president Charles Michel and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan sat in armchairs next to each other — leaving her to sit alone on a sofa opposite Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister.

The awkward moment, caught on video at Turkey’s presidential palace in Ankara, came ahead of talks between the EU officials and Erdogan that both sides wanted to depict as a “new momentum” in an often acrimonious relationship.

The EU’s Michel, who in the video glances at von der Leyen but remains in his armchair, blamed Turkey for the diplomatic mishap. “The strict interpretation of the protocol rules by the Turkish authorities gave rise to a distressing situation: the differentiated — even inferior — treatment of the president of the European Commission,” he said in a Facebook post late on Wednesday.

But in televised comments on Thursday, Cavusoglu railed against “unjust imputations against Turkey from the highest levels”. He said: “The EU’s requests were granted in the protocol applied during this meeting. This arrangement was made in line with the European Union’s suggestions. Full stop.”

As the apparent snub of von der Leyen attracted attention online, Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch liberal MEP, posted a photo on Twitter of Jean-Claude Juncker, former commission president, and Donald Tusk, his European Council counterpart, flanking Erdogan in chairs set at equal distance.

But Cavusoglu rejected speculation that the slight against von der Leyen reflected a negative view of women. Turkey is especially vulnerable to accusations of sexism after Erdogan last month pulled his country out of a landmark Council of Europe treaty to prevent violence against women.

The back and forth over seating arrangements also reveals inter-institutional jostling in Brussels that can baffle outsiders and obscure the bigger picture. The European Council president chairs meetings of EU national leaders, while the European Commission chief heads the bloc’s Brussels-based executive. Some contend the former ranks higher in meetings with non-EU heads of state and government, such as Erdogan.

But “in protocol terms, the president of the commission is treated in the same way as the president of the council”, Eric Mamer, a commission spokesperson, told reporters on Thursday. He added that von der Leyen had asked her team to make arrangements to ensure similar situations “do not arise in the future”.

In his post, Michel rued that the dispute — dubbed #chairgate or #sofagate on Twitter — had “overshadowed the substantial and beneficial geopolitical work” he said he and von der Leyen had performed in Turkey.

Von der Leyen said she and Michel had travelled to Turkey to “give our relationship new momentum” but offered few details beyond pledges to improve trade links, financial assistance to curb irregular migration and to draw attention to human rights violations.

Turkey is officially a candidate for EU membership but negotiations have been on ice for more than a decade over its chequered human rights record and strained relations with neighbours Cyprus and Greece.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *