Mario Draghi has angered Turkey by calling its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan “a dictator” and accusing him of humiliating European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen during a diplomatic visit to Ankara this week.
The Italian prime minister criticised Erdogan for an incident where von der Leyen was left standing awkwardly as the Turkish president and Charles Michel, European Council president, sat down in two adjacent armchairs in what has become a heated controversy between the EU and Ankara over protocol and blame.
“I absolutely do not agree with Erdogan’s behaviour towards President von der Leyen,” Draghi said. “I do not think it was appropriate behaviour and I was very sorry for the humiliation von der Leyen had to suffer.”
Draghi then followed up his comments by calling the Turkish president “a dictator”, but defended the EU’s continuing diplomatic engagement with Ankara.
“With these dictators — let us call them what they are — one must be frank in expressing one’s diversity of views and visions of society,” he said. “One must also be ready to co-operate to ensure the interests of one’s country. The right balance must be found.”
Turkey’s foreign ministry said that it had summoned the Italian ambassador in Ankara over Draghi’s “unacceptable statements”.
Faruk Kaymakci, who is Turkey’s deputy foreign affairs minister as well as director for EU affairs, informed the ambassador that Erdogan “was a leader elected with the most votes” and Turkey strongly condemned Draghi’s remarks. He said that Turkey expected the “extreme and ugly remarks unfitting” of an ally to be immediately retracted.
Kaymakci also said the debate over the protocol mishap was “meaningless and ill-intentioned”, aimed at undermining a positive agenda between Turkey and the EU, which are seeking to move on after tensions spiked last year over Turkish drilling for gas in eastern Mediterranean waters internationally recognised as belonging to Greece and Cyprus.
In comments made on Twitter, Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister who was in attendance at the meeting between Erdogan, von der Leyen and Michel, called Draghi “appointed”, in a pointed reference to the fact that he did not face any form of popular vote to become Italy’s prime minister.
Draghi’s comments mark the second robust diplomatic intervention for the former European Central Bank president in just under two months since being asked by Italy’s president to become prime minister and lead a national unity government during the country’s Covid-19 crisis.
In early March, Italy made a request to the EU to block the export of a batch of AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia, in the first intervention since the EU introduced rules over the shipment of vaccines outside the bloc.
The move, which came after Draghi expressed strong criticism of delays to AstraZeneca deliveries of vaccines to the EU, established Italy as one of the more vocal EU countries in favour of strictly policing exports from the bloc.