Charles Michel admits to possible ‘SofaGate’ mistake

European Council leader was conscious of delicate state of relations with Turkey

Watch moment Ursula Von Der Leyen snubbed at Erdogan meeting

Watch moment Ursula Von Der Leyen snubbed at Erdogan meeting
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European Council chief Charles Michel said he might have made an error during the so-called SofaGate diplomatic debacle in Ankara.

Mr Michel said he did not speak out initially because of the delicate state of relations between the European Union and Turkey.

Uproar ensued this week after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was relegated to a socially distanced sofa, while Mr Michel sat in an armchair next to Turkish leader President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a high-level meeting. Only two chairs were set out despite the three officials being of similar diplomatic rank.

Turkey – which blamed the EU for the incident and rejected accusations of sexism – was heavily criticised by European politicians, with Italy’s new Prime Minister Mario Draghi calling Mr Erdogan a dictator.

Mr Draghi's comments sparked an angry remark rebuke from Ankara, which demanded a retraction.

“We strongly condemn this rhetoric, which has no place in diplomacy. If Mario Draghi is looking for a dictator, he should look no further than Italy’s history," said Mr Erdogan's communications director Fahrettin Altun

Mr Michel, who said he regretted the incident on Tuesday deeply, was criticised for going along with the arrangement.

“I can tell you that I have rewound the scene in my head ... I would like so much to rewind, to go back. If I could do it, I would make sure that there is no ambiguity whatsoever,” he told Belgian news channel LN24.

Mr Michel “noted that a problem would arise but I also admit that in the moment of this situation, I was convinced that reacting, no matter how I would have reacted, would have presented the risk of being seen as a form of paternalism, since Ursula herself had expressed her disapproval of the subject in a clear and unambiguous way”.

“It was perhaps a mistake on my part, but in the moment that was my reaction because it is my way of understanding an equal relationship between men and women,” the former prime minister of Belgium said.

The visit by the EU leaders was a sign that tension could be cooling with Turkey after relations soured in 2020.

“This meeting followed ... months of political and diplomatic preparation,” Mr Michel said. “One can say I should have done this or that, but I had the conviction that this would cause a much more serious accident that would destroy the very fragile capacity ... to finally have a little less negative relationship with Turkey.

“There were fundamental issues at stake for Europe: in terms of migration, in terms of the fight against terrorism, in terms of an economic agreement.”

At the meeting on Tuesday, a visibly displeased Ms Von der Leyen eventually took up a seat on a sofa opposite Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who is of lower diplomatic rank.

The Council's protocol team said it had not seen in advance the room where the talks took place.

"If the room for the tete-a-tete 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," it said.

On Thursday, EU Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said “in protocol terms, the president of the commission is treated in the same way” as the council president.

Mr Draghi, who has been Italy’s prime minister for less than two months, waded into the row on Thursday.

"I am very sorry for the humiliation that the president of the commission had to suffer with these – let's call them for what they are, dictators – but with whom we need to co-operate," he said.

In the wake of his comments, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry summoned Italy’s ambassador to condemn the remarks, referred to by Mr Cavusoglu as "populist, ugly and unreasonable".