The backlash from policymakers following the diplomatic snub to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Ankara on Tuesday has continued to snowball, with many demanding an apology and full explanation from Council President Charles Michel.
Three of the European Parliament’s political groups have also requested a plenary debate with von der Leyen and Michel to clarify the blunder in Ankara.
Dubbed ‘SofaGate’, the incident in which von der Leyen was forced to sit on an adjacent sofa while Michel and Turkish President Recep Erdoğan sat on gilded chairs in the centre of the room, was initially seen as an eyebrow-raising diplomatic gaffe, but it has now brought to the fore deeper questions of gender equality, EU diplomatic protocol and the future of EU-Turkey relations.
As EU policymakers absorbed the images of von der Leyen standing perplexed as to the absence of a third chair, an increasing number of high-profile politicians asked why Michel had not done more to prevent the humiliation of his Commission counterpart.
In a statement on Facebook on Wednesday evening, Michel said, “On Tuesday, Ursula von der Leyen and I attended a meeting in Ankara with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Some of the photographs of that meeting have provoked harsh reactions and interpretations, to which I feel bound to respond.”
He said that “despite a clear desire to do the right thing, the strict interpretation of the protocol rules by the Turkish authorities gave rise to a distressing situation: the differentiated – even inferior – treatment accorded to the President of the European Commission.”
He went on, “The few photographs of that meeting which have been circulated have given the impression that I was indifferent to the situation. Nothing could be further from the truth, or from my deeply held feelings – or indeed from the principles of respect which I hold so dear.”
“Charles Michel must publicly apologise and come to the European Parliament and assume personal responsibility for his unacceptable complacency with the shameful treatment received by President von der Leyen”
Esteban González Pons, EPP Group vice-president
“At the time, while realising the regrettable nature of the situation, we decided not to make matters worse by creating a scene. At the beginning of the meeting, we resolved instead to focus on the substance of the political discussions, which Ursula and I were to embark upon with our hosts.”
At the end of his statement Michel says he is “saddened on two counts.”
“Firstly, by any suggestion that I may have been indifferent to the protocol misstep with respect to Ursula, especially considering how honoured I am to be a part of the European project, two of whose four main institutions are headed by women, Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde. And how proud I am that a woman, the first in history to hold the office, succeeded me as Prime Minister of Belgium.”
“Secondly, I am saddened that this situation has overshadowed the substantial and beneficial geopolitical work which we accomplished together in Ankara, and which I hope will prove fruitful for Europe.”
Esteban González Pons, vice-president of the European Parliament’s EPP Group, said, “The macho affair in Ankara needs proper clarification. Excuses are not enough.”
“Charles Michel must publicly apologise and come to the European Parliament and assume personal responsibility for his unacceptable complacency with the shameful treatment received by President von der Leyen.”
Dimitrios Papadimoulis, a Parliament vice-president, who is also chair of the High-level Group on Gender Equality and Diversity, said that “such unacceptable behaviour cannot be tolerated under any circumstances.”
“The few photographs of that meeting which have been circulated have given the impression that I was indifferent to the situation. Nothing could be further from the truth, or from my deeply held feelings”
Charles Michel, European Council President
In a letter addressed to von der Leyen and Michel, with Parliament President David Sassoli and Parliament’s political group presidents in copy, Papadimoulis says, “During your visit to Ankara, on 6 April, with Turkish President Recep Erdoğan, we witnessed an unprecedented insulting behaviour of the Turkish leadership towards the President of the European Commission and the EU in general.”
“Given that your visit was planned and, therefore, it was known in advance that both of you would be attending the meeting with the Turkish President, such an unacceptable and degrading - both for the EU and for gender equality - violation of the protocol can only be considered as a deliberate choice for the Turkish leadership.”
“After all, at a similar meeting in the past, the then President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, sat next to the then President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, and the Turkish President.”
He goes on, “As vice-president of the European Parliament, responsible for gender equality and diversity, I find it unacceptable that the President of the European Commission had to sit on an adjacent spot and not, as the protocol requires, next to the Turkish President along with the President of the European Council.”
Referring to Michel’s role in the ‘SofaGate’ incident, Papadimoulis says that it “was not as the circumstances had demanded”, adding, “and his subsequent reaction remains lukewarm and unconvincing.”
On Thursday, the EPP Group, the Parliament’s largest political grouping, said, “We are calling for a plenary debate on the recent visit of Commission President von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel to Turkey.”
“Unfortunately it has resulted in a symbol of disunity as the Presidents failed to stand together when it was needed.”
“Erdoğan pulling Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention wasn’t just a publicity stunt: he is truly contemptuous of women, and his public humiliation of Ursula von der Leyen underlines his misogyny” Manon Aubry, The Left co-president
Group leader Manfred Weber said that besides the failure of unity, “we need to know what was put on the table by President Michel, as the issues being mentioned need approval from the European Parliament.”
“We are extremely concerned commitments on visa or customs where made, without concrete and durable changes of Turkey's policy in the Eastern Mediterranean, towards Cyprus and our external borders. In addition, the visit failed to show our wider concerns when it comes to President Erdoğan’s attacks on civil society and the political prisoners in the country.”
“These issues need to be clarified and we will have therefore requested a plenary debate in the Presence of the two Presidents”, Weber added.
S&D Group leader Iratxe García Pérez said that while EU-Turkey relations are crucial, EU unity and respect for human rights, including women’s rights, are also key.
She added, “That is why I have asked for a plenary debate with von der Leyen and Charles Michel to clarify what happened and how to respect the EU institutions.”
Renew Europe leader Dacian Cioloș also tweeted that it was “important that the European Parliament debates at the next plenary the outcome of the EU’s visit to Ankara EU-Turkey relations”, though he notably left out any mention of Michel, who also belongs to the Renew Europe Group.
The Left in the European Parliament issued a statement on Thursday saying that “Erdoğan’s misogynist treatment of Ursula von der Leyen should not divert from wider concerns as to why the EU keeps turning a blind eye to a Turkish leader notorious for his contempt for women’s and human rights.”
“Dear Charles Michel, as a modern man who advocates for gender equality, couldn't you offer the single chair to von der Leyen to counter Erdogan’s affront? You missed an excellent opportunity to break through the existing sexist patterns the EU aims to combat” Samira Rafaela, Renew Europe
The statement continued, “Fresh from pulling Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention last month, Erdoğan’s disdain for women’s rights is patently clear. However, questions must be asked as to why Charles Michel and von der Leyen left Ankara without taking the Turkish president to task over his record not just on women’s rights, but also his relentless repression of political opponents, and other human rights violations.”
The Left co-president Manon Aubry said, “Erdoğan pulling Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention wasn’t just a publicity stunt: he is truly contemptuous of women, and his public humiliation of Ursula von der Leyen underlines his misogyny.”
French Renew Europe MEP Nathalie Loiseau echoed this, saying, “The Turkish president respects neither women nor the European Union.”
Renew Europe colleague, Dutch MEP Samira Rafaela, directly addressed Michel on Twitter, saying, “Dear Charles Michel, as a modern man who advocates for gender equality, couldn't you offer the single chair to von der Leyen to counter Erdogan’s affront? You missed an excellent opportunity to break through the existing sexist patterns the EU aims to combat. #SofaGate.”