Oh dear, it was very unkind of me to laugh. But I couldn’t help but laugh at the video in which Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, quietly smokes during this week’s summit in Turkey after two caddish males pocketed the only available seats.
Indeed, I suspect I was far from alone when I was immediately reminded of the age-old tale of the Etonian, the Wykehamist, and the Harrovian, repeated over the years to illustrate the stereotypical differences between Eton, Winchester, and Harrow alumni .
You know that one. A woman walks into a room where the three public school boys are standing. The Etonian lazily orders, “Get that lady a chair!” The meek Wykehamist rushes to get it. And Harrow’s bounder promptly sits on it.
I couldn’t help but laugh at the video in which Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, quietly smokes at this week’s summit in Turkey after two caddish males took the only available seats.
Clearly, the male presidents who treated Ms. von der Leyen so carelessly – Recep Tayyip Erdogan from Turkey and Charles Michel from the European Council – are two of nature’s Harrovians.
For his part, the blatant Erdogan can hardly claim that it was an accident that no chair was put down for von der Leyen. This is because previous photos show three chairs set up for the meeting before one was removed.
If this was a mistake, the Turkish leader could easily have demanded the return of the chair – especially after his German guest made her feel displeased, with an emphatic ‘ahem!’ and a gesture that said, “Where the Gott im Himmel should I sit?” But he just ignored her.
He and his assistants would also be well aware that under the diplomatic protocol, the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council are equal.
This means they should always be given equally prominent seats – a courtesy shown to their predecessors on previous visits to Turkey, when both happened to be male.
So there is no escape: Erdogan’s treatment of von der Leyen was a deliberate disregard – all the more emphatically, given that one of the topics under discussion on the agenda of the summit was his government’s disrespect for women’s rights.
Erdogan’s treatment of Von der Leyen was deliberate disregard – all the more so as one of the issues on the agenda of the summit was his government’s disrespect for women’s rights. Which brings me to the extraordinary behavior of Mr Michel, pictured, the former Belgian Prime Minister who took over from Donald Tusk at the European Council at the end of 2019.
Which brings me to the extraordinary behavior of Mr Michel, the former Belgian Prime Minister who took over from Donald Tusk at the European Council at the end of 2019.
Now I am old-fashioned enough to believe that any real gentleman in his position would have known immediately where his duty lay, the moment he saw only one chair under the European flag. As a matter of basic good manners, he would have offered it to the lady.
Out of respect for the dignity of his own office, he would also have rightly maintained that his host would seek a third seat for him.
Instead, he made his way to the single chair under the flag and immediately lowered his buttocks into it, leaving Mrs. von der Leyen standing. Eventually she had to sit on a side seat while Mr. Michel controlled it from his throne.
What an unspeakable cad! In a more chivalrous era, he would have been hit by a horse – or at least banished from civilized society.
Then how come when I saw the YouTube video of this disgraceful display my first instinct was to chuckle?
One reason, I think, is that the incident highlights the ridiculous power structure of the EU, with its multitude of presidents – those of the Commission, Council, Parliament and Central Bank – all jealously demanding that their status be duly honored .
Add to that 27 heads of state, all vying with the rest for proper recognition, and is it any wonder that every major project that touches Brussels, from the single currency to Covid’s vaccination campaign, is a mess?
I must also confess that I have a bit of gloating (a word Mrs von der Leyen will understand very well). After all, she has treated Britain’s AstraZeneca with such disdain, for her generous gift to the world, that it does her heart good to see her get a dose of her own medicine.
But more than that, I laughed because that tacky scene in the Turkish capital so perfectly illustrates an excruciating dilemma that we men often experience in this era of feminism.
I did feel a wave of sympathy for the shady Mr. Michel as he sank into that chair. There was an uncomfortable look in his eyes as he stared at Mrs. von der Leyen, which made me think I could read exactly what was going through his mind.
If I guess correctly, his thought process went something like this: ‘Mon dieu! There is only one seat! Of course, chivalry dictates that I should present it to Madame. But wait a minute …
I must also confess that I have a bit of gloating (a word Mrs von der Leyen will understand very well). After all, she has treated Britain’s AstraZeneca with such disdain for its gracious gift to the world that it does her heart good to see her get a dose of her own medicine.
Would she be offended if I treated her like a lady? Powerful women often do that these days. Maybe it would be safer if I treated her exactly like I would if she was a man and let her do it the way she wants.
With that in mind, he sat down.
Big mistake – as his fawning apology made it so clear on Wednesday night after Mrs. von der Leyen’s office expressed her anger. But isn’t it true that men simply can’t win in this day and age when so many feminists view any display of bravery as a “micro-aggression”?
Born in the early 1950s, I was raised to always open doors for women, stand when they enter a room, and offer them my seat on the bus or the subway if they need it.
In some circumstances, I still do – and I find that most women appreciate it. But in recent years, more than a few have looked at me with rabid faces for showing them pleasantries that were once considered de rigueur.
How can a poor guy know if the woman on the subway, weighed down with shopping bags, will thank him for giving her his seat – or curse him for belittling sisterhood?
And how does a poor Belgian bureaucrat know whether a female President of the European Commission will love or hate him for acting like a gentleman?
But let me end with a similar dilemma I faced many years ago when I had the pleasure of being invited to dinner at his Mayfair home by an up-and-coming Tory MP with decidedly old-fashioned manners. Let’s call him Jacob Rees-Mogg because that’s his name.
I don’t know if he changed his ways, but in those days it was his custom to ask the ladies to back off at the end of the meal and leave the men to their male talk about the harbor.
Now it happened that one of my fellow guests on the evening in question was a female colleague, whom I knew was a passionate feminist.
She was deeply offended by the suggestion that the ladies should leave the table, presumably to talk knitting and babies, while the men discussed matters of high status.
Hence my dilemma. Should I stay at the table and be forever damned in the eyes of my female colleague as an antediluvian male chauvinist pig? Or should I show my solidarity with her by joining the ladies – insulting my generous host?
For what it’s worth, in this loss-making situation, I have taken a cautious stance on feminism and abandoned my fellow male guests. But since then I’ve wondered if I was doing the right thing.
Wasn’t life a lot easier when everyone accepted that the sexes were treated differently and nobody seemed to mind?