The European Commission hit out Wednesday (7 April) at a diplomatic snub that left its head Ursula von der Leyen without a chair as male counterparts sat down at a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Video from Tuesday’s encounter in Ankara showed von der Leyen flummoxed as the Turkish leader and European Council president Charles Michel took the only two chairs in front of their flags.
Yikes. EU Commission Prez Ursula von der Leyen gets no chair in meeting with #Turkey’s Erdogan.
As EU Council chief Charles Michel is ushered in, seated next to Erdogan, the senior woman official looks around, says “Erm”, before ending up on sofa:
— Joyce Karam (@Joyce_Karam) April 7, 2021
“Erm,” muttered the former German defence minister, appearing unsure where to go.
Eventually she was seated on a sofa a little further away from her counterparts, opposite Turkey’s foreign minister — someone below her in the protocol pecking order.
“The president of the commission was clearly surprised,” European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said, insisting von der Leyen should have been treated “exactly in the same manner” as Michel.
“She does consider that these issues are important and need to be treated appropriately, which they clearly were not,” Mamer said.
The faux pas — quickly dubbed “sofagate” online — came at a delicate moment as the EU and Turkey look to rebuild ties despite concerns over Ankara’s record on rights, including the protection of women.
Erdogan angered Brussels ahead of the visit by the bloc’s chiefs by announcing he was withdrawing Turkey from the global Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women and children.
Speaking after the meeting with the Turkish leader, von der Leyen stressed
that “human rights issues are non-negotiable”.
“I am deeply worried about the fact that Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul
Convention” she said.
“This is about protecting women, and protecting children against violence,
and this is clearly the wrong signal right now.”
Spokesman Mamer said that the problem surrounding von der Leyen’s seating during the meeting with Erdogan had “sharpened her focus on the issue”.
The perceived slight to the first woman ever to occupy one of the EU’s top two roles raised hackles back in Brussels.
“First they withdraw from the Istanbul Convention and now they leave the
President of European Commission without a seat in an official visit.
“Shameful. #WomensRights,” wrote Spanish European Parliament member Iratxe
German MEP Sergey Lagodinsky wrote of von der Leyen’s utterance that “‘Ehm’
is the new term for ‘that’s not how EU-Turkey relationship should be’.”
But not all the ire was directed at the Turkish side.
Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld was left questioning why Michel was “silent” as his female colleague was left without a seat.