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Rapprochement with Ankara stillborn as 'sofagate' hits EU-Turkey relations

·2 min read

The European Commission has hit out at Turkey after the commission chief Ursula von der Leyen was left without a chair as she was in Ankara for talks with the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The video from Tuesday's encounter in Ankara showed von der Leyen flummoxed as Erdogan and the European Council president Charles Michel took two chairs in front of the EU and Turkish flags.

"Ehm," she is heard muttering, holding out her arms in apparent exasperation.

She was eventually seated on a sofa a little further away from her male counterparts, opposite Turkey's foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu - who is significantly below her in the pecking order of diplomatic protocol.

Responding to the diplomatic gaffe - quickly dubbed "sofagate" online - Cavusoglu said on Thursday that the seating was arranged in line with the bloc's demands and with international protocol. He said that Turkey was being subject to unjust accusations.

3 chairs good, 2 chairs bad

In the past, three chairs were provided when Erdogan visited Brussels for talks with the heads of the European Commission and the European Council, which collectively represents the EU's 27 member states.

Similarly, when former EU Commission President Donald Tusk and European Council president Jean-Claude Junker met Erdogan in the past, three chairs were also provided for their meeting.

Ties between Brussels and Ankara have been strained since a failed coup in 2016 prompted a crackdown in Turkey that led to thousands of arrests.

And more recently, a maritime row between Turkey and Greece stoked tensions last year with the EU threatening sanctions against Ankara.

Wednesday's diplomatic débacle was also widely shared on social media and prompted backlash against Ankara over protocol, and also Michel for not defending his fellow EU executive.

Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld questioned why Michel remained silent as von der Leyen was left without a seat.

European Council president defends his (seating) position

After a day of weathering criticism on social media, Michel responded on Facebook saying the video of von der Leyen left without a chair "gives the impression that I was oblivious to this situation. Nothing is further from the reality or my deepest feelings".

He blamed what he called a dismal and regrettable scene on a protocol blunder by the Turkish side.

Michel added that he and von der Leyen chose not to worsen it by making a public incident and to focus instead on the matters to be discussed.

Wednesday's faux pas came as the EU and Turkey look to rebuild ties despite concerns over Ankara's record on human rights, including discrimination against women.