The EU’s Charles Michel has said he’s losing sleep over the gaffe that left Ursula von der Leyen without a chair during a high-level meeting in Turkey.
Footage shows the awkward moment Michel and Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took the two top seats, leaving von der Leyen left wondering where she should sit. Eventually, she withdrew to a sofa, some distance from the two men.
“I make no secret of the fact that I haven’t slept well at night since then,” he told German business newspaper Handelsblatt, adding he would go back and rectify the situation if it were possible.
“My fear was that if I had reacted in any way, I would have triggered a much more serious incident,” he said.
The incident comes with Turkey under the spotlight over women’s rights after withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty on preventing domestic violence.
But Michel, president of the European Council, has not escaped criticism. He did not offer up his seat to von der Leyen — the first female president of the European Commission — despite both being of equal rank.
How did Charles Michel react?
Michel, later defending himself on Facebook, wrote: “The strict interpretation by the Turkish services of the rules of protocol produced a distressing situation: the differentiated, even reduced, treatment of the President of the European Commission.
“The few images that were shown gave the impression that I would have been insensitive to this situation. Nothing is further neither from reality nor from my deep feelings. Nor from the principles of respect which seem essential to me.”
Using the first person plural, Michel said both he and von der Leyen preferred to focus on the substance of the discussion with President Erdoğan, which included women’s rights, instead of aggravating the incident.
“I am sad for two reasons,” Michel said at the end of his statement.
“First, by the impression given that I would have been indifferent to the protocol awkwardness vis-à-vis Ursula. All the more so since I am honoured to participate in this European project, of which two major institutions out of four are headed by women, Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde.
“Finally, I am saddened, because this situation has overshadowed the major and beneficial geopolitical work that we carried out together in Ankara, and of which I hope that Europe will reap the fruits.”
What are the two sides saying?
Turkey has made it clear that all the responsibility from the incident lies with the European Union.
“The EU side’s demands were fulfilled,” said Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. “This means that the seating arrangement was made according to their suggestions. Our protocol units came together previously and their demands were realised.”
But on Thursday afternoon, following days of media requests, the European Council sent out a two-page statement signed by its head of protocol, Dominique Marro, with the intention of establishing who did what and how.
Marro says that a “preparatory meeting” took place between Turkish and the EU officials on April 5, a day before the high-level encounter.
“The Council’s protocol service was present, while the European Union delegation, which had organised the meeting, was not present, with the exception of the regional security officer. A security officer for the President of the Commission was also present. On the other hand, the Commission’s protocol service, which is generally in charge of missions carried out by the President of the Commission, was absent,” the statement explains.
A short visit of the premises was undertaken, but the meeting and dining rooms were not accessible “because they were deemed to be too close to President Erdoğan’s office.”
“If the room for the tête-à-tête 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,” Marro says, adding that the dining room did have three chairs prepared for the leaders.
At the end, the Council offers an explanation for the misunderstanding: “In general, the protocol for third countries makes a clear distinction between the status of head of state, held by the President of the European Council, and the status of prime minister, held by the President of the Commission; this could have been the source of the issue.”
EU Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said earlier this week that Michel and von der Leyen had equal rank and so should have been seated together.
How has ‘sofagate’ gone down in Brussels?
The gaffe has touched a nerve among MEPs, who, unlike national governments, are more prone to criticise Turkey in explicit terms.
Female MEPs were particularly enraged. Sophie in ‘t Veld, from the liberal group Renew Europe, shared pictures on Twitter from previous EU-Turkey meetings, where the then-European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is shown seated on an equal footing with then-European Council President Donald Tusk.
The European People’s Party (EPP), the largest group in the European Parliament, said on Thursday morning that it will call for a debate — in the presence of Michel and von der Leyen — to find out what exactly happened in Ankara.
“The Ankara visit of Presidents von der Leyen and Michel should have been a message of firmness and unity of Europe’s approach to Turkey. Unfortunately, it has resulted in a symbol of disunity as the presidents failed to stand together when it was needed. We expect more from Europe’s foreign policy”, said EPP chairman Manfred Weber.
An EPP spokesperson confirmed to Euronews that one of the priorities of the debate will be to clarify the protocol incident.
The EPP, to which von der Leyen herself belongs as a member of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), also wants to discuss the EU commitments made to Turkey in regards to visa and customs union, tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and relations with Cyprus.
Iratxe García Pérez, the chair of the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group, said her group will also request that a debate on the Ankara visit is included in the agenda of the Parliament’s next part-session, scheduled for the week of Monday, April 26. The socialist leader had previously said the “sofagate” episode was “shameful”.