Von der Leyen, Michel seek way forward after ‘sofa-gate’ tensions

The seating arrangements which the Turkish side says were coordinated with the EU representation in Ankara. [Council Newsroom]

EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel held their first talks Monday (12 April) since a diplomatic gaffe in Turkey — dubbed “sofa-gate” — laid bare tensions between the bloc’s major institutions.

Brussels has been rattled by the incident in Ankara last week that saw von der Leyen left without a chair at talks with male counterparts Michel and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

'Divan-gate': Brussels angry over von der Leyen Turkey chair snub

The European Commission hit out Wednesday (7 April) at a diplomatic snub that left its head Ursula von der Leyen without a chair as male counterparts sat down at a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

The awkward scene snowballed into a scandal that has sparked allegations of sexism, intensified jockeying between the European Union’s institutions and threatened to derail efforts to mend ties with Turkey.

European Council head Michel has faced flak for not appearing to support European Commission boss von der Leyen.

Many believe that Michel could have made the best of the situation by simply offering his seat to von der Leyen.

Michel offered his “deep regrets” to her at Monday’s talks and assurances “such an incident must not happen again”, his spokesperson said.

The council chief also stressed the need to “allow no one to divide the EU”, the spokesperson added.

A Commission source said von der Leyen had on Monday “made clear that she will never allow such a situation to arise again”.

The former German defence minister was angered by the diplomatic slight in Ankara and is seeking to make sure that her role as head of the EU’s executive is treated on a par with Michel’s job running the body that brings together the bloc’s 27 leaders.

Ankara says the protocol arrangements had been agreed with the EU representation in Turkey.

The two EU chiefs will meet on Tuesday with heads of the European Parliament’s political groupings to give an account of events in Ankara after a clamour from lawmakers for them to appear before the body.

Michel said he was suffering from bad nights due to his embarrassment over the protocol incident.

“I make no secret of the fact that I haven’t slept well at night since because the scenes keep replaying in my head,” Michel told the German newspaper Handelsblatt on Sunday, adding if it were possible he would go back and fix it.

On Thursday Michel gave a 50-minute interview to Belgian TV channel LN24 in which it said that he had not been able to speak to von der Leyen to the phone after the incident, indicating that the Commission President had not taken his calls.

He said that he would like to “rewind”, but added that he had the conviction that reacting in front of Erdoğan would have had serious consequences on EU-Turkey relations.

The Commission said on Monday von der Leyen had taken a few days off to see its family in Germany.

MEPs are expected to raise the issue of the EU international standing which took a first blow when foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell was publicly humiliated by his hosts during his visit to Russia last February.

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