Turkey denies claims of sexism towards Ursula von der Leyen and blames ‘sofagate’ on EU

  • The moment European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen was led into a meeting room with the Turkish president and had to sit on a sofa away from her male counterparts

Turkey has rejected claims that it snubbed Ursula von der Leyen, one of the European Union's most powerful executives, because she was a woman.

It insisted it followed the EU's own protocol requests during a meeting at the Turkish presidential palace on Tuesday.

European Commission president Ms von der Leyen and European Council chief Charles Michel met Turkish President Recep Recep Tayyip Erdogan for talks on Turkey-EU relations.

The guests were led into a large room for discussions with the president but only two chairs had been set out in front of the EU and Turkish flags.

Ms von der Leyen stood looking at the men who took the chairs, expressing her astonishment with an “ehm” sound and a gesture of disappointment.

She was later seen seated on a large beige sofa, away from the two men.

Social media users who saw the images accused Turkey of gender discrimination with the hashtag "sofagate"

But Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the criticism was "extremely unfair" as the arrangement was in line with EU requests.

Mr Cavusoglu insisted that Turkish and EU officials in charge of protocol had held meetings prior to the visit.

He said: “The protocol that was applied during the narrow-scope meeting that was held at our president’s office met the requests of the EU side.

“In other words, such a seating arrangement was made in line with the suggestions of the EU side. Period."

He said he felt obliged to publicly blame the EU for the arrangements after accusations against Turkey from even “the highest levels of the EU”.

He also said: “Turkey is a deep-rooted state and this is not the first time that it has hosted a visitor.

“The protocol applied during its (international) meetings is in line with international protocol rules as well as the world-renowned Turkish hospitality traditions.”

EU Commission chief spokesperson Eric Mamer said on Wednesday that Ms von der Leyen was surprised by the arrangement and she should have been seated together with Mr Michel and Mr Erdogan.

“She decided to proceed nevertheless, prioritising substance over protocol, but nevertheless let me stress that the president expects the institution that she represents to be treated with the required protocol,” Mr Mamer said.

He added that Ms von der Leyen had asked her team to ensure the incident does not happen again.

Mr Mamer also said Ms von der Leyen’s protocol team did not travel to Turkey with her due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Michel said late on Wednesday that the embarrassment was the result of the “strict interpretation” by Turkish services of protocol rules, and he regretted “the differentiated, even diminished, treatment of the president of the European Commission”.

He said while photos of the meeting gave the impression that he 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”.

“At the time, while realising the regrettable nature of the situation, we decided not to make matters worse by creating a scene,” he said.