Turkey’s leader met two E.U. presidents. The woman among them didn’t get a chair.
By Michael Birnbaum,
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Tuesday with the European Union’s two presidents, but an awkward moment when the woman among them was left standing caused a bit of a diplomatic stir.
A video of the leaders assembled in an ornate meeting room in Ankara showed Erdogan and European Council President Charles Michel settling themselves into gilded chairs, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen appeared unsure of where she was expected to sit.
Von der Leyen stood staring at them, gestured with her right hand and appeared to say “um” or “ehm.”
She was ultimately offered a beige couch about 12 feet away, opposite Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who occupies a lower-status rank in typical diplomatic protocol.
“ ‘Ehm’ is the new term for ‘that’s not how EU-Turkey relationship should be’. #GiveHerASeat #EU #Turkey #womensrights,” tweeted Sergey Lagodinsky, a German member of the European Parliament, who is chair of the legislature’s delegation to a joint E.U.-Turkish parliamentary committee.
Another member of the European Parliament, Dutch lawmaker Sophie in ‘t Veld, noted that at meetings between Erdogan and the prior pair of E.U. presidents, who were both men, the three leaders were seated next to one another, in equivalent chairs.
“It wasn’t a coincidence it was deliberate,” she wrote on Twitter, where some people explained away the incident as more about social distancing than protocol. “Why was @eucopresident silent?” she wrote, using Michel’s Twitter handle to ask why he didn’t offer his fancier seat to his counterpart.
Critics had already been taking aim at the visit, which came two weeks after Erdogan pulled Turkey out of an international treaty aimed at preventing violence against women known as the Istanbul Convention. Erdogan allies said the move didn’t mean women’s rights were being downgraded.
Von der Leyen, a former German defense minister, and Michel, a former Belgian prime minister, are typically treated as equivalent in rank. As head of the European Commission, von der Leyen leads the E.U.’s executive wing and oversees the bloc’s membership negotiations with Turkey, which are on life support. Michel represents the leaders of the 27 individual member nations of the E.U.
Before the episode of chair-and-sofa diplomacy, the three leaders posed for pictures standing together, von der Leyen to Erdogan’s left and Michel to his right in a more standard representation of their status. Only afterward did von der Leyen seem to get ushered to the side.
The official E.U. video was shot from behind von der Leyen, showing the scene playing out from her perspective.
After the meeting, von der Leyen made no direct mention of the incident. But she did express concern about Turkey’s record on women’s rights.
“I am deeply worried about the fact that Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention,” she told reporters. “This is about protecting women and protecting children against violence. And this is clearly the wrong signal right now.”