Turkey demanded an apology Friday from Italy's premier for having called President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a "dictator," a comment that added fuel to a dispute over the seating arrangement during the high-level meeting with the top European Union officials at the Beştepe presidential complex.
The comment also deepened an EU-Turkey rift at a time when the two sides had hoped for a rapprochement.
Italian Premier Mario Draghi made the uncharacteristically undiplomatic comment Thursday at the end of an hour-long news conference devoted to Italy's coronavirus pandemic response. He was asked his reaction to the diplomatic blunder during EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel's visit to Turkey.
Draghi said Erdoğan's behavior was inappropriate and that he was sorry for the "humiliation" von der Leyen had suffered.
"It's that with these — let's call them what they are — dictators, who, however one needs ... one must be frank in expressing differences of views, opinions, behavior, of visions of society ... but also be ready to collaborate, more to cooperate, to collaborate to ensure the interests of one's country."
Turkey summoned Italy's ambassador to protest, and a presidential spokesman demanded that Draghi retract his words.
"We strongly condemn this rhetoric, which has no place in diplomacy. If Mario Draghi is looking for a dictator, he should look no further than Italy's history," Erdogan's communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said Friday.
As of Friday evening, Draghi had not apologized publicly or issued a retraction.
Turkey has strongly rejected the allegation that von der Leyen was snubbed and insisted it followed the EU's own protocols in making the seating arrangements. Von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel traveled to Ankara for talks on Turkey-EU relations. Only two chairs were set out in front of the EU and Turkish flags for the three leaders.
Von der Leyen watched as the men took the chairs, expressing her astonishment with an "ehm" sound and a gesture of disappointment. She was later seated on a large beige sofa, away from Michel and Erdoğan.
Turkish Deputy President Fuat Oktay defended Erdogan, saying the Turkish leader had opposed "all kinds of fascism and tutelage" and "won every election with the highest respect of his people."
"I invite Draghi to apologize," he said.