It was the snub seen around the world — and now it may have serious consequences. After the president of the European Council left his female colleague without a seat during a meeting with the Turkish president, a petition has been created, urging him to resign.
It started when European Council President Charles Michel and and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen were meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. During the meeting, Michel and Erdoğan took the only two chairs available, leaving von der Leyen to stand, then find a seat elsewhere — after looking displeased.
Video of the incident quickly went viral – if not just for its awkwardness, for its apparent sexism. It has since been dubbed "Sofagate," but a group of dozens of women activists groups and leaders says it has serious implications.
In a letter to Michel, the group of women calls the seat snub an error against democracy, the European Union and women's rights – and they are calling for Michel to resign.
The letter lists the three crucial errors made by Michel when he left von der Leyen standing during the meeting with Erdoğan.
Firstly, the group said, Michel and von der Leyen are on an equal diplomatic level and Erdoğan "set a trap" by offering only one other seat during a three-person meeting.
"And you, M. Michel, you rushed into this seat, almost lying down so badly you wanted to occupy it," the letter reads. "Faced with Mrs. von der Leyen's dismay, you did not flinch, you wanted to be seated to Mr Erdoğan's right."
The group says Michel could have invited the woman to sit, or could have remained standing with her. "You remained silent," they said.
While Mrs. von der Leyen could have stood or left, "she preferred not to increase the incident" and sat on a nearby couch, "however very angry," the letter explained.
"The dictator, meanwhile, watched your game and scored his points," the group said, referring to Erdoğan. "You gave him this unhealthy pleasure by falling so heavily into his trap."
The second reason Michel was wrong, the group said, was that his "thoughtless attitude" was detrimental to all citizens of the European Union, "giving the dictator an image of internal conflict, weakness of intelligence and reaction on the part of the President of its Council, at a time when the question of Turkey's entry into Europe constitutes a serious and unresolved debate."
The group called this "pathetic," and said instead of admitting he was wrong and that he fell for the "trap" set by the Turkish president, Michel complained.
"If #sexism and #misogyny can still exist today, it is because witnesses remain silent or because they profit from this disqualification of women," the leader reads.
Lastly, Erdoğan had announced in March that Turkey was "stepping out from the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating all violence against women and domestic violence," the group said.
"By ostensibly taking leadership as a man over a woman who is your political equal, you offer reinforcement to the dictator on the crush he wants to impose to women and girls of Turkey, fifteen days after the authoritarian decision he took to violate gender equality, implicitly authorizing all violence against women and children in Turkey," the group wrote.
Following the incident, Michel said he was "saddened by any suggestion that I may have been indifferent to the protocol misstep with respect to Ursula," BBC News reports. He said the impression that he was "indifferent" to the situation was incorrect and that nothing could have been further from the truth, according to BBC News.
In the letter, the group criticized Michel's apology and started a petition for his resignation, which has been signed by more than 10,000 people as of Tuesday.
Leaders of women's groups like the Millennia2025 Women and Innovation Foundation and the International Law League of Women, took part in the letter, which will be sent to Michel on Tuesday. The group is also sending a copy to von der Leyen, who is the first woman president of the European Commission.
Before the letter was written, several women leaders publicly addressed "Sofagate," criticizing Michel and Erdoğan's handling of the situation. Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said it was a "deliberate" slight that "puts into question the equal treatment" of von der Leyen, adding it wasn't a coincidence she was the only woman at the meeting, she tweeted.
Iratxe García Pérez, leader of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, also shared the "Sofagate" video on Twitter, writing: "First they withdraw from the Istambul Convention and now they leave the President of European Commission without a seat in an official visit. Shameful. #WomensRights."
In an interview with German newspaper Handelsblat last week, Michel said if it were possible, he would go back and fix the situation, Reuters reports. "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 said.
Turkey said it was at the EU's request the room was set up this way. However, EU Council Head of Protocol Dominique Marro said his team did not have access to the room where the incident happened before the meeting, The Associated Press reports.
"If the room for the tête-à-tête had been visited, we should have suggested to our hosts that, as a courtesy, they replace the sofa with two armchairs for the president of the Commission," Marro wrote in a note that has been made public by the EU Council, according to the AP.