A controversy erupted on Tuesday: during a meeting in Ankara, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was placed by the protocol on a couch set back from the presidents of the institutions of the European Union (EU) with Turkish Head of State Recep Tayyip Erdogan and European Council President Charles Michel, which caused a lot of resentment but also friction in Brussels.
Turkey castigated, Thursday, “unfair accusations” after this formal affront. “Turkey is a deeply rooted state and this is not the first time that we have welcomed foreign dignitaries,” said the head of diplomacy Mevlut Cavusoglu, who said that the arrangement of the seats at the heart of the controversy had been suggested by the European side.
“The EU’s demands have been respected. This means that the seating arrangement was made at their request. Our protocol services met before the meeting and their requests (from the EU) were respected, ”he said.
But the protocol service of the European Council, an institution chaired by Charles Michel, argued Thursday that he had not had prior access to the room where the meeting was to take place. “If the room had been visited, we would have suggested to our hosts that, as a courtesy, the sofa be replaced by two armchairs for the President of the Commission,” said the service in a letter.
Italian Ambassador to Ankara summoned
The scene was filmed and widely broadcast on social networks. Under the hashtag #Sofagate, it prompted many comments on the unequal treatment between the two heads of the European institutions, and its sexist character.
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On Thursday evening, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi even qualified Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a “dictator” and said he was “deeply saddened by the humiliation that the President of the Commission had to endure”. These remarks were described as “populist, offensive and unreasonable” by Mevlut Cavusoglu, who summoned the Italian ambassador to Ankara.
On Wednesday, Ursula von der Leyen made known her displeasure at being placed on the back seat and demanded to be treated as the equal of the President of the Council. Its spokesperson affirmed that “the presidents of the two institutions have the same protocol rank” but the European Council, the body representing the member states, however indicated that its president had precedence over the Commission for the international protocol.
Indignant reactions in Europe
The major political groups of the European Parliament deplored Thursday the image of disunity given by the presidents of the institutions during their meeting with the Turkish president and asked them to come and explain themselves in plenary.
“The meeting in Ankara of Presidents von der Leyen and Michel should have sent a message of firmness and unity of the European approach towards Turkey. Unfortunately, it has translated into a symbol of disunity, the presidents having failed to unite when necessary. We expect more from Europe’s foreign policy, ”lamented the German Manfred Weber, president of the Group of the European People’s Party (EPP) (pro-European right).
The president of the Socialists and Democrats group, the Spaniard Iratxe Garcia Perez, also asked for the hearing of the presidents of the two institutions “to clarify what happened” and to see “how to ensure respect for the European institutions”.
In a comment on Facebook, Charles Michel estimated that “the strict interpretation by the Turkish services of the rules of protocol has produced a distressing situation: the differential treatment, even reduced, of the President of the European Commission”. “At the time, while perceiving the regrettable nature of the situation, we chose not to aggravate it by a public incident (…)” and “to privilege” “the substance of the political discussion” with the president Turkish, he added, while saying he was “saddened” by this incident.
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The case has sparked indignant reactions in Europe, especially since it occurred a few weeks after Ankara’s withdrawal from a European convention on the prevention of violence against women.