The protocol scandal that overshadowed the EU leaders’ recent visit to Turkey keeps unfolding, raising questions about Council President Charles Michel’s reaction, but also about the EU’s consistency in asking Ankara to adhere to the Istanbul Convention.
Turkey on Thursday (8 April) blamed the EU for seating arrangements that left European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen without a chair during a meeting with the Turkish president, as the protocol scandal threatened to bring fresh headaches for the bloc.
The Turkish response came after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his officials were heavily criticised for the snub during the Tuesday meeting with von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel in Ankara.
The room where the three leaders were hosted had only two chairs arranged next to the corresponding EU and Turkish flags. Erdoğan and Michel quickly seated themselves while von der Leyen – whose diplomatic rank is the same as that of the two men – was left standing.
“Erm,” she said as she spread her arms in wonder and looked directly at Michel and Erdoğan.
Official images later showed her seated on a sofa opposite Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who said on Thursday that criticism of Turkey for the diplomatic blunder was “unfair”.
“The seating arrangements were made in line with the EU suggestion. Period. We would not be revealing this fact had accusations not been made against Turkey,” Çavuşoğlu told reporters.
“The demands and suggestions of the EU side were met and the proper protocol applied during the meeting,” he added.
The diplomatic faux pas was instantly branded “sofa-gate” on Twitter and became the dominant talking point of the first Turkey-EU summit in a year.
The three leaders were trying to set a more positive tone after months of spats.
But it ended with European officials throwing accusations of male chauvinism at Turkey, which last month withdrew from an international accord on gender-based violence.
“First they withdraw from the Istanbul Convention and now they leave the President of European Commission without a seat in an official visit. Shameful,” wrote Spanish MEP Iratxe Garcia Perez.
European leaders denounced on 20 March what they called Turkey’s baffling and concerning decision to pull out of the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe accord designed to protect women from violence. Turkey said domestic laws, not outside fixes, would protect women’s rights.
Not all EU members have ratified the Istanbul Convention. According to the Council of Europe website Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia have not ratified the convention.
Some also questioned why Michel was so quick to take a seat. Obviously, he could have made the best of the situation by simply offering his seat to von der Leyen.
The European Council president broke nearly a full day of silence by writing on Facebook that although it seemed like he was “oblivious” to the situation, it was a “protocol blunder” by Turkey.
The two EU leaders “chose not to worsen it by making a public incident”, Michel wrote.
Von der Leyen used a post-summit press conference to stress that she had a long and interesting discussion with Erdoğan about women’s rights, and a commission spokesman suggested later that the incident had “sharpened her focus”.
But Çavuşoğlu said Turkey knew perfectly how to follow diplomatic protocol and was complying with the instructions of an EU planning delegation.
“The meetings – especially in Turkey – are held within the framework of international protocol rules and Turkish hospitality,” Çavuşoğlu said.
Brussels journalists asked the Commission how it could argue Ankara should return to the Istanbul Convention, when four EU countries have not ratified it, and one of them – Bulgaria – never will, according to a ruling by its Constitutional Court.
In response Commission chief spokesperson Eric Mamer merely repeated that the EU executive calls on all member states to ratify the Council of Europe convention.
‘Symbol of disunity’
The conservative EPP grouping is demanding a full debate in the European Parliament on the issue, with leader Manfred Weber telling Politico the trip to Ankara had become “a symbol of disunity” between the EU’s top officials.
Spain’s Garcia also said she had asked for a debate and wanted von der Leyen and Michel to appear.
“EU-Turkey relations are crucial. But #EU unity and respect for human rights, including women’s rights, are also key,” she tweeted.
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen said the entire visit was a bad idea because it showed the bloc “lying down before a hostile” Erdoğan.
The bloc is next expected to address its relations with Turkey at a European Council leaders’ meeting on 24-25 June.
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]