MEPs want EU leaders to answer for ‘Sofagate’ in Parliament

Leading MEPs are pressuring European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to come answer questions before the European Parliament on the diplomatic sofa snub in Turkey.

Von der Leyen was left standing on Tuesday during a meeting with Michel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara, when there were only two chairs set out for the three leaders. Von der Leyen retreated to a nearby sofa, an incident that prompted cries of sexism and left EU institutions squabbling in the press.

The ‘Sofagate’ snub ended up overshadowing the reason for the meeting: resuming coordination with Turkey on vital issues like migration and expanding the customs union.

Now, MEPs want more information on what, exactly, happened.

On Thursday, Iratxe Garcia, the leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group tweeted that she had asked for a plenary debate with von der Leyen and Michel to “clarify what happened and how to respect the European institutions.”

She added: “EU-Turkey relations are crucial, but #EU unity and respect for human rights, including women’s rights, are also key.”

If the Parliament’s political group leaders approve the request at next week’s Conference of Presidents meeting, the debate would be held during the Parliament’s next plenary session, from April 26 to 29.

Garcia’s call is supported by other Parliament leaders. On Wednesday, Manfred Weber, chairman of the European People’s Party group, similarly said he would request a debate to clarify the event’s circumstances.

The visit to Ankara “should have been a message of firmness and unity of Europe’s approach to Turkey,” Weber told Brussels Playbook. “Unfortunately, it has resulted in a symbol of disunity, as the presidents failed to stand together when it was needed.”

Weber is seeking information about the meeting beyond the seating arrangement backstory. He wants to know what, if any, promises were made with Ankara. Tensions between the EU and Turkey have lessened after peaking last year amid Turkey’s provocative actions toward EU members Cyprus and Greece.

Weber said Parliament “needs to know what was put on the table” during the gathering, “as the issues being mentioned need approval from the European Parliament.” In his own remarks, Michel said the two sides discussed topics like closer economic cooperation, financial help and visa liberalization.

“We are extremely concerned commitments on visa or customs were made, without concrete and durable changes of Turkey’s policy in the Eastern Mediterranean, towards Cyprus and our external borders,” Weber said. “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.”

Separately, Parliament’s liberal group, Renew Europe, will also request a debate on the Turkey visit, according to a spokesperson.

The party wants to know about the protocol fiasco, but also about “relations with Turkey, human rights and the Istanbul Convention,” a European human rights treaty meant to combat violence against women that Turkey recently abandoned.

“We are also going to suggest an inter-institutional reflection on the EU presence on the international stage, where we need coherence and credibility,” the spokesperson added.

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