ANKARA: Turkey and the EU blamed each other 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 received a torrent of criticism after images went viral of his Tuesday meeting with von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel in Ankara.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi even suggested that the episode showed that Erdogan was a ‘dictator’, sparking a furious response from Turkey.
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 while 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.
The 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.
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. The talks ended with European officials throwing accusations at Turkey linked to Erdogan’s withdrawal a month earlier from the Istanbul Convention against gender-based violence.
Draghi threatened to escalate the dispute to another level by accusing Erdogan — who already has a running feud with French President Emmanuel Macron — of being a tyrant.
“I am very sorry for the humiliation that the president of the Commission had to suffer with these, let’s call them for what they are, dictators, but with whom we need to cooperate,” Draghi told reporters.
Turkey’s foreign ministry immediately summoned Italy’s ambassador to protest what Cavusoglu called Draghi’s “populist, ugly and unreasonable” remarks.
The ministry later said in a statement deputy foreign minister Faruk Kaymakci told the envoy the comments did “not suit Turkey-Italy’s friendship and alliance”. Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Turkey expected a “correction” of the “unwarranted” remarks by Draghi.
The European Council president expressed “deep regret about the impression” created by footage of him taking a seat while von der Leyen stood.
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.
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.