ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) receiving EU Council President Charles Michel (center) and President of EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen (left) at the Presidential Complex in Ankara. – AFP

BRUSSELS: EU lawmakers yesterday called for the bloc’s top two officials to explain a snowballing diplomatic scandal that saw Commission head Ursula von der Leyen left without a chair at talks with Turkey’s president. The furor-dubbed “sofagate” online-has sparked a slew of accusations over Ankara’s attitude to women and the EU, sexism in Brussels, and internal political wrangling between the bloc’s institutions.

It all centered on an awkward moment at the start of talks between von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Tuesday. The well-appointed room which the three leaders entered 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 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. Cavusoglu said yesterday that criticism leveled 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,” Cavusoglu told reporters.

Von der Leyen, as president of the European Commission, is head of the EU executive. Michel, president of the European Council, represents member state governments. Brussels expects both to be treated with the protocol reserved for a head of government. “The president of the commission was clearly surprised,” European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said, insisting von der Leyen should have been treated “exactly in the same manner” as Michel. “She does consider that these issues are important and need to be treated appropriately, which they clearly were not,” Mamer said.

While the two male leaders took the only two chairs, a blindsided von der Leyen was left standing before being ushered to a nearby sofa. “EU-Turkey relations are crucial. But EU unity and respect for human rights, including women’s rights, are also key,” Spanish MEP Iratxe Garcia Perez, the head of the Socialist & Democrats grouping in parliament, wrote on Twitter.

She said she had asked for a conversation with Von der Leyen and Michel “to clarify what happened and how to respect the EU institutions”. That call was echoed by the leader of the conservative European People’s Party parliamentary bloc, Manfred Weber, who told Politico the trip to Ankara had become “a symbol of disunity” between the EU’s top officials.

The meeting with Erdogan came at a delicate moment as the EU and Turkey look to rebuild ties rocked by renewed tensions last year. Von der Leyen, the first female head of the European Commission, stressed Brussels’ concerns over women’s rights after Erdogan withdrew from the Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women and children. Her spokesman hit out at the diplomatic faux pas but said she had pressed on with addressing the thorny issue of ties with Ankara rather than walking out of the meeting.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu deflected blame from Ankara and said the seating arrangements were made “in line with the EU suggestion. Period”. Michel drew flak in Brussels for seeming not to support his colleague and readily accepting the only available seat. In a Facebook post he insisted “nothing is further from the reality or my deepest feelings” and said the “regrettable” scene was down to a Turkish protocol blunder.

The scandal drew complaints from across Europe over what was seen as only the latest example of bungled EU foreign policy efforts. “These are images that hurt. I don’t want a naive Europe,” France’s Europe minister Clement Beaune said. “We are dealing with interlocutors who know the value of symbols. We have to be much more firm.”

‘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 a 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 combatting gender-based violence-of male chauvinism.

“First they withdraw from the Istanbul Convention and now they leave the President of European Commission without a seat in an official visit. Shameful. #WomensRights,” wrote Spanish European Parliament member Iratxe Garcia Perez. Some also questioned why Michel was so quick to take a seat. – AFP