Turkey and EU blame each other in ‘sofagate’ scandal

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stands as European Council President Charles Michel and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan take seats in Ankara, Turkey April 6, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 08 April 2021

Turkey and EU blame each other in ‘sofagate’ scandal

  • The Turkish leader came under a torrent of criticism after images went viral of his Tuesday meeting
  • The diplomatic faux pas was instantly branded "sofagate" on Twitter

ISTANBUL: Turkey and the EU blamed each other on Thursday for seating arrangements that left European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen without a chair during a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Turkish leader came under a torrent of criticism after images went viral of his Tuesday meeting with von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel in Ankara.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi even suggested that the episode showed that Erdogan was a "dictator".
The room where the three leaders were hosted had only two chairs arranged next to the corresponding EU and Turkish flags.
Erdogan and Michel quickly seated themselves while von der Leyen - whose diplomatic rank is the same as that of the two men - was left standing.
"Ehm," she said, spreading her arms in wonder and looking directly at Michel and Erdogan.
Official images later showed her seated on a sofa opposite Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
"The seating arrangements were made in line with the EU suggestion. Period," he said in the first public statement by a Turkish official on the episode.
"We would not be revealing this fact had accusations not been made against Turkey," Cavusoglu told reporters.
But Michel's European Council said its protocol team had been denied advance access to the meeting room where the three leaders first sat down for talks.
"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," the protocol team said in a letter.
The diplomatic faux pas was instantly branded "sofagate" on Twitter and became the dominant talking point of the first Turkey-EU summit in a year.
The three leaders had been trying to set a more positive tone to relations after months of spats.
But the talks ended with European officials throwing accusations of male chauvinism at Turkey that they linked to Erdogan's withdrawal a month earlier from the Istanbul Convention against gender-based violence.
Draghi threatened to escalate the dispute to a another level by accusing Erdogan - who already has a running feud with French President Emmanuel Macron - of being a tyrant.
"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 cooperate," Draghi told reporters.
The Turkish government issued no immediate comment.
Yet many also questioned why Michel was so quick to take a seat.
The European Council president broke nearly a full day of silence by acknowledging on Facebook that the episode made him look "oblivious" to von der Leyen's discomfort.
But he blamed a "protocol blunder" by Turkey that he and von der Leyen decided to overlook at the time.
The episode came with the European Union's leadership under mounting pressure over the bloc's slow coronavirus inoculation effort and strains emerging between the 27 member states.
Several European Parliament groups demanded an investigation into how von der Leyen was left standing while Michel took a seat.
"The setting for this meeting does not seem to be based on order of precedence... but rather by a male-chauvinist way of representation of an autocrat," Belgian European Parliament member Assita Kanko wrote in a formal question to Michel.
The conservative EPP grouping's leader Manfred Weber told Politico the trip to Ankara had become "a symbol of disunity" between the EU's top officials.
And French far-right leader Marine Le Pen called the entire visit a bad idea because it showed the bloc "lying down before a hostile" Erdogan.
Von der Leyen's spokesman meanwhile refused to be drawn on speculation that none of this would have happened had the European Commission followed the European Council's example and sent a protocol team to Ankara.
"President (von der Leyen) simply wishes that these questions be analysed so that we do not face the same types of questions on our next mission," Eric Memer told reporters.


Iran starts up advanced centrifuges in new nuclear deal breach

Updated 14 min 37 sec ago

Iran starts up advanced centrifuges in new nuclear deal breach

  • President Hassan Rouhani inaugurates cascades of 164 IR-6 centrifuges and 30 IR-5 devices at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant

TEHRAN: Iran announced Saturday it has started up advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium more quickly, in a new breach of its undertakings under a troubled 2015 nuclear agreement.
President Hassan Rouhani officially inaugurated the cascades of 164 IR-6 centrifuges and 30 IR-5 devices at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant in a ceremony broadcast by state television.

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Guelleh re-elected president of Djibouti with 98.58% of vote: official count

Updated 10 April 2021

Guelleh re-elected president of Djibouti with 98.58% of vote: official count

DJIBOUTI: Ismail Omar Guelleh was re-elected for a fifth term as president of Djibouti with more than 98 percent of the vote, according to provisional results announced by Interior Minister Moumin Ahmed Cheick Friday night.
“President Ismail Omar Guelleh obtained 167,535 votes, which is 98.58 percent,” he told public broadcaster RTD, adding that confirmed results would be released soon by the Constitutional Council.


US put forward ‘very serious’ ideas to Iran on reviving nuclear deal: official

Updated 10 April 2021

US put forward ‘very serious’ ideas to Iran on reviving nuclear deal: official

WASHINGTON: The United States offered “very serious” ideas to Iran on how to revive a nuclear deal during talks in Vienna but is waiting for Iran to show the same “seriousness,” a US official said Friday.
“The United States team put forward a very serious idea and demonstrated a seriousness of purpose on coming back into compliance if Iran comes back into compliance,” the official told reporters as talks broke for the weekend.
But the official said the United States was waiting for its efforts to be “reciprocated” by Iran.
“We saw some signs of it but certainly not enough. There’s still question marks about whether Iran has the willingness to... take the pragmatic approach that the United States has taken to come back into compliance with its obligations under the deal,” he said.
President Joe Biden supports a return to the 2015 agreement trashed by his predecessor Donald Trump under which Iran drastically scaled back nuclear work in return for promises of sanctions relief.
Iran has demanded that the United States first lift all sanctions imposed by Trump, which include a sweeping unilateral ban on its oil exports, before it falls back in line with obligations it suspended.
The US official indicated that the major stumbling block in the initial talks was not the order of compliance but rather which sanctions were under discussion as Iran is demanding an end to all US restrictions.
Iran’s position is “not consistent with the deal itself because under the deal the US retains the right to impose sanctions for non-nuclear reasons, whether it’s terrorism or human rights violations or interference with our elections,” the official said.
“All sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA and are inconsistent with the benefits that Iran expects from the JCPOA we are prepared to lift. That doesn’t mean all of them because there are some that are legitimate sanctions,” he said, using the acronym for the accord’s official name.
Iran refused to meet directly with US negotiator Rob Malley during the talks led by the European Union, whose envoys shuttled between the two sides in different hotels. Talks are set to resume in the same format next week.

Video shows Israeli police beating lawmaker at protest

Updated 09 April 2021

Video shows Israeli police beating lawmaker at protest

  • Police seen punching lawmaker Ofer Cassif and trying to put him in a headlock
  • Jerusalem's police chief has ordered an investigation into the incident

JERUSALEM — A video circulating online shows Israeli police punching a member of parliament and wrestling him to the ground at a protest against planned evictions in east Jerusalem on Friday.
The video shows a scuffle between Israeli police and Ofer Cassif, the only Jewish member of the Joint List, an alliance of Arab parties in Israel’s Knesset.
The police can be seen punching him and trying to put him in a headlock before dragging him to the ground. One of the officers can later be seen briefly kneeling on his chest.
Cassif was left with a swollen eye, his shirt torn.
Ahmad Tibi, a fellow lawmaker from the Joint List, was among those sharing the video of the scuffle on Twitter, calling it a “brutal assault” and a violation of parliamentary immunity.
Israeli police said in a statement that Cassif attacked the policemen, who used “reasonable force” in response and released him as soon as they identified him as a member of parliament.
It said Jerusalem’s police chief, Doron Turgeman, has ordered an investigation into the incident.
Cassif was taking part in a weekly protest in the mostly Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where rights groups say dozens of people are at risk of being evicted after a long court battle with Jewish settler groups.
Jewish and Palestinian activists have been holding small weekly protests against the threatened evictions.
Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 war and annexed it in a move not recognized by most of the international community. Israel views the entire city as its unified capital, while the Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state.
An Israeli court recently ordered the eviction of 58 people, 17 of them children, from seven houses in Sheikh Jarrah, according to the Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now.
The families are Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation who Peace Now says took up residence in the neighborhood under an agreement with Jordan, which controlled east Jerusalem from 1948 until 1967.
Peace Now says settler groups are pushing for their eviction by arguing that the land belonged to Jews prior to 1948. Israel supports the return of Jews to lands they lost in the 1948 war while barring Palestinians from doing the same.
Some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war. They and their descendants now number more than 5.8 million and are scattered across the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Their fate is one of the most divisive issues in the Middle East conflict.


German firms unveil lavish post-blast Beirut port plan

Updated 09 April 2021

German firms unveil lavish post-blast Beirut port plan

  • Plan put forward by two German firms envisions moving port activity away from city centre and re-urbanising damaged areas
  • German team admits corruption that has defined Lebanese politics for decades was an obstacle

BEIRUT — A German delegation on Friday unveiled a spectacular multi-billion-dollar project to rebuild Beirut port and its surroundings but admitted it was contingent on far-reaching government reforms.
Swathes of the port and adjacent neighborhoods were destroyed when fire ignited poorly stored ammonium nitrate on August 4, causing one of the world’s largest ever non-nuclear explosions and killing more than 200 people.
The ambitious German project was met with skepticism by some observers who argued Lebanon’s leaders were showing no sign of providing the most basic conditions for foreign investment.
The plan put forward by two German firms envisions moving most port activity away from the city center and re-urbanizing the most damaged areas.
Speaking at a press conference in Beirut, Colliers Germany managing director Hermann Schnell listed “affordable housing for families, green space and good infrastructure” among other features.
The project envisions beaches and a “central park” alongside restored architectural heritage, all wrapped in a plan that would generate 50,000 jobs and billions in profit.
The German pitch saw an “opportunity for a new city,” mapped out in a presentation that featured what it said were successful examples of redeveloped ports in cities like Cape Town, Bilbao and Vienna.
Lars Greiner of Hamburg Port Consulting (HPC) said the concept would “develop the port precinct of Beirut into a world class, state-of-the-art port” that would be more automated, cost-efficient and ready for regional trade growth.
The private initiative is the first large-scale, comprehensive plan after last year’s blast and has the support of Germany, whose ambassador attended the press conference.
Other international players are also working on alternative or complementary proposals.
French shipping giant CMA CGM, which leads container operations in Lebanon, submitted its own master plan in September.
“Such a huge project... can only be built if there is accountability and transparency,” German ambassador Andreas Kindl said at the news conference.
The project envisions the creation of a trust overseen by independent international appointees to manage funding from the European Investment Bank and other investors.
“I don’t see these proposals... becoming reality anytime soon,” economist and anti-government activist Jad Chaaban told AFP.
“Who today is prepared to invest one penny in a country whose collapse is in full swing, which has no government and defaulted on its debt?“
The German team admitted the corruption that has defined Lebanese politics for decades was an obstacle.
“What’s on the table is incredible... The only thing that you really need to do is make sure that there is transparency, that’s it,” HPC managing director Suheil Mahayni told AFP.
“We don’t dream, we have a clear vision... But if some pre-conditions are not fulfilled and don’t allow full transparency, it’s not going to work,” he said.