This is the awkward moment Ursula von der Leyen was without a seat at a summit in Turkey when her male counterparts grabbed the only two available seats – before the trio talked about women’s rights.
The incident took place in Ankara on Tuesday when von der Leyen, the chair of the EU commission, met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan alongside European Council President Charles Michel.
Video shows Von der Leyen being left aside and uttering an audible ‘ahem’ as Michel and Erdogan took the only two available seats – without offering her their seat, even after protesting.
She was instead left on a bench nearby, at a distance from the two men, while they held two and a half hours of talks on Turkey’s relations with the EU, including Erdogan’s decision to withdraw. from a treaty for the protection of women’s rights.
Von der Leyen’s spokesman said afterwards that Turkey had violated protocol by not offering her a seat, as it has done with other male committee chairmen in the past, but that she decided to ‘put content above protocol’ to continue.
Ursula von der Leyen was left irritated after she was sidelined in talks between the EU and Turkey in Ankara on Tuesday after her two male counterparts took the only available seats.
Von der Leyen, who could be heard uttering an exasperated ‘ahem’ as the men sat down, was left on a nearby bench during two and a half hours of diplomatic talks
However, the spokesman added, “ Let me emphasize that the president expects the institution she represents to be treated with the required protocol, and so she has asked her team to make all appropriate contacts to ensure that such an incident does not take place. occur in the future. ‘
The diplomatic protocol requires that the President of the European Commission and the President of the Council, who hold the same rank, should sit equally.
None of the leaders mentioned the incident in press conferences held after the summit, but Von der Leyen’s spokesman spoke out today after images of the moment went viral on social media.
“ Most importantly, the president should have been sitting in exactly the same way as the president of the European Council and the Turkish president, ” said EU commission chief spokesman Eric Mamer, adding that von der Leyen was surprised by the arrangements.
The diplomatic incident received a lot of comment on social media.
European legislator Sophie in ‘t Veld posted photos of previous meetings between Michel and Von der Leyen’s predecessors with Erdogan, with the trio of men sitting side by side on chairs.
“And no, it was no coincidence, it was deliberate,” wrote In ‘t Veld on Twitter, wondering why Michel “kept silent”.
Last month, Erdogan pulled Turkey out of a major European convention aimed at combating violence against women, which drew criticism from EU officials.
The move was a blow to the Turkish women’s rights movement, which says domestic violence and murders of women are on the rise.
Von der Leyen was in Turkey alongside EU Council President Charles Michel (left) and Turkish President Erdogan (center) to discuss relations with the EU – including on women’s rights
Sophie in ‘t Veld, a European legislator, pointed out that Turkey has previously given chairpersons to both EU leaders at meetings where all three were men
Von der Leyen called on Erdogan to reverse his decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Treaty.
Human rights issues are non-negotiable. We were very clear about that. We urge Turkey to reverse its decision as it is the first internationally binding instrument to combat violence against women and children, ”she said.
When asked whether the committee considered the incident specifically gender-related, Mamer said Von der Leyen traveled to Ankara as chair of an EU institution.
“Being male or female doesn’t change the fact that she should have been to the same protocol agreements as the other two participants,” Mamer said.
She seized the opportunity to specifically address the Istanbul Convention and women’s rights. I think the message sent was clear. ‘
Meanwhile, Mr Michel used a post-meeting press conference to call on Turkey to resolve disputes with Greece and Cyprus over gas rights in the Mediterranean.
A feud between Turkey and EU member states Greece and Cyprus over offshore jurisdiction has strained ties, reaching a peak last summer when Turkish and Greek naval frigates escorted ships searching for hydrocarbons in disputed waters.
The European Union backs Athens, while Ankara accuses the bloc of bias and failure to deliver on its promises under a 2016 migrant deal.
Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s visit follows an EU summit last month at which the bloc said work could begin on closer trade relations and on providing more money to refugees in Turkey.
Despite concerns over what some European leaders call Turkey’s recent human rights decline, the EU has welcomed Ankara’s recent withdrawal of ships into disputed waters and has resumed talks with Greece.
Neither von der Leyen nor Michel mentioned the issue at a press conference afterwards, but a spokesman said today that Turkey has violated diplomatic protocol.
“In Ankara, ready with (von der Leyen) to enter into a discussion with (Erdogan) about the future of EU-Turkey relations,” Michel said on Twitter.
“Sustained de-escalation is needed to build a more constructive agenda.”
The EU opened the door last month to begin updating a customs union, as requested by Ankara.
This would bring EU candidate Turkey into the internal market of the world’s largest trading bloc and allow an unimpeded flow of goods and services.
Erdogan has downplayed EU membership in recent years and few analysts see it as imminent.
EU leaders, who last spoke with Erdogan in person a year ago, should present Ankara with three options if maritime de-escalation continues, including improving economic ties, a formula to relieve the more than 4 million refugees. Support Turkey. , and ways to increase contacts.
“We are no longer in an emergency, so it’s more about working for a longer-term perspective,” said an EU official.
At the summit last month, the EU also warned Ankara of sanctions if it re-launches energy exploration in disputed waters and expressed concern about Turkey’s human rights record.
Michel and Von der Leyen are expected to emphasize in Ankara that the EU will not endorse closer ties without respecting fundamental rights.
Both the EU and the United States have criticized an attempt by Turkey to abruptly withdraw from a convention protecting women from violence, as well as a lawsuit to shut down the third largest party, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party .