Turkey rejects blame for ‘SofaGate’, says EU got wishes, famous hospitality

Turkey’s government said it extended the country’s famous hospitality to the EU’s most senior officials this week, denying any role in an incident that left European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen without a chair at a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The seating arrangements, which forced von der Leyen to sit on a sofa several metres away from Erdoğan and European Council chief Charles Michel, were made in line with the EU’s wishes, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Thursday.

“The protocol applied to meetings in Turkey is the international protocol and has been applied in the scope of worldwide renowned Turkish hospitality,” he said after a meeting with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah in Ankara.

“The EU side’s requests were fulfilled by us, meaning that the seating arrangement was made in line with their suggestions,” Çavuşoğlu said. “Our protocol units came together and their requests were carried out.”   

Michel, speaking on Facebook, said Turkey’s interpretation of the protocol rules at the Tuesday meeting had been “strict” and ultimately “distressing”.

The incident, labelled as ‘SofaGate’ in the media, followed swiftly on the heels of a decision by Erdoğan in late March to withdraw Turkey from the Istanbul Convention, a treaty of the Council of Europe designed to protect women against violence and mistreatment.

Some EU politicians and political observers suggested that the incident further highlighted Erdoğan’s macho and chauvinistic attitude towards women, which has included calls for them to be mothers above all else and the riling of feminists and homosexuals.    

Standing in the middle of a room at Erdoğan’s presidential palace, von der Leyen uttered a questioning “ehm?” to the president and Michel before taking her seat on the sofa opposite Çavuşoğlu. Later in the day, her spokesperson said that she was surprised and considered that “these issues are important and need to be treated appropriately, which they were not”.

Michel, who sat awkwardly during the brief incident, said in a 400-word statement on Facebook that the few images shown from the meeting “gave the impression that I would have been insensitive to this situation”.

“Despite a clear desire to do the right thing, the Turkish authorities' strict interpretation of protocol rules has produced a distressing situation: the differentiated or even subordinated treatment of the President of the European Commission,” he said in comments translated from French.

“While perceiving the regrettable nature of the situation, we chose not to aggravate it through a public incident,” he said.

“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. And I am also proud that a woman, the first in history, succeeded me as prime minister of Belgium.”

Former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker waded in on Sofagate late on Wednesday, playing down the significance of any Turkish snub.

“I think it would have been better to have her sitting at the same level” as Michel, “but from a protocol point of view the president of the Council is No. 1,” he said in comments carried by Politico.

Juncker has previously held talks with Erdoğan and former European Council President Donald Tusk at which all three were seated together.