Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was taken aback to find her fellow top EU official taking the only chair available next to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan when the duo visited Ankara.
Footage from their meeting on Tuesday showed the first female head of the EU executive, the only woman in the talks, gesturing in disbelief and uttering a surprised sigh as Erdogan and European Council President Charles Michel took the two centre-stage seats prepared, relegating her to an adjacent sofa.
The move sparked a diplomatic row between the EU and the Turkish leader who later claimed the sitting arrangements were approved by the bloc ahead of the meeting.
Mr Verhofstadt said the row highlighted the shortcomings of the European Union ever since the separation of the two roles between the Commission and the Council.
In a scathing attack on the bloc, he wrote: “It has been a disappointing compromise ever since. Because instead of unifying roles and responsibilities, we simply created new posts and added to the confusion.
He added: “The European Union is a hybrid political animal.
“It combines federalised powers conferred to Brussels institutions and politicians with competences that remain firmly in national hands.
“There’s nothing wrong with that if – but only if! – the division of labour is right. We often play good cop/bad cop for instance on trade, where the Commission does the hard and unpopular work of negotiating and applying the rules, and national governments can go around the world promoting their country’s businesses untainted.
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“It is time to fix Europe’s indecisiveness and weakness!”
Turkey’s foreign minister responded on Thursday to the diplomatic mishap.
Mevlut Cavusoglu, the foreign minister who was seated Tuesday on another couch, said on Thursday the seating arrangement was in line with international protocol and that Turkey was being subject to “unjust accusations”.
He said: “Turkey is a deep-rooted state, it is not the first time it hosts a guest. The protocol followed for meetings in Turkey is within the international protocol framework. The same was done here too.
“The protocol at the presidency met the demands of the EU side. In other words, the seating arrangement was designed to meet their demands and suggestions.”
In the past, three chairs were provided when Erdogan visited Brussels for talks with the heads of the European Commission and the European Council, which collectively represents the EU’s 27 member states.
Ties between Brussels and Ankara have been strained since a failed coup in 2016 prompted a crackdown in Turkey that has led to the arrests of thousands.
A maritime row between Turkey and Greece stoked tensions last year and the EU threatened sanctions on Ankara, but they are now testing a cautious rapprochement.