Ursula Von der Leyen has suggested Turkey was guilty of sexism in failing to provide her with a seat at a meeting with president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The European Commission president met Mr Erdogan on Tuesday along with Charles Michel, the European Council president, to discuss women’s rights, the EU refugee deal and general relations with Brussels.
But the agenda was overshadowed as the two leaders were forced into a moment of diplomatic awkwardness that resembled a game of musical chairs.
At the start of the Ankara meeting, Mrs Von der Leyen - the first female president of the Commission - was left visibly perplexed as Mr Michel and Mr Erdogan took the only two chairs available in the centre of the room.
Video footage picked up the German politician saying “erm?” as Mr Michel, without hesitation, took his place at Mr Erdogan’s side. Eric Mamer, Mrs Von der Leyen’s spokesman, said “the protocol level of our president is exactly the same as that of the president of the European Council” and she “should have been seated in exactly the same manner as the Council and Turkish presidents”.
He added: “The president of the Commission was clearly surprised. She does consider that these issues are important and need to be treated appropriately, which they clearly were not.”
Mr Erdogan’s decision to cancel Turkey’s involvement in the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty combating violence against women, was discussed in the meeting.
Asked whether the seating snub had given Mrs Von der Leyen a taste of life as a woman under Mr Erdogan’s government, Mr Mamer replied: “Obviously, this sharpened her focus on the issue.”
Mrs Von der Leyen later said “human rights issues are non-negotiable” but did not comment personally on the chair incident. The president’s relegation was yesterday condemned by EU figures past and present, and prompted SofaGate to trend on social media.
“First they withdraw from the Istanbul Convention and now they leave the president of European Commission without a seat in an official visit. Shameful,” wrote Iratxe Garcia Perez, a Spanish MEP.
Karoline Edtstadler, Austria’s EU minister, condemned the “absolutely unacceptable [...] disrespectful behaviour”, while Violeta Bulc, a former transport commissioner, called the meeting “a humiliating demonstration of equality” and “a diplomatic fiasco”.
Ausra Maldeikiene, a Lithuanian MEP, tweeted that “if the president of Turkey came to my house I would find him a chair, even though he is a man”.
Mr Michel himself came in for criticism. Christian Kern, a former chancellor of Austria, called the president “a joke”, while Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch legislator, questioned why he had remained silent.
His social media team appeared to be unaware of the controversy over the video of the meeting, as it was tweeted out to the president’s 1.1 million followers. Mr Michel’s spokesman was asked to comment but no statement was issued at time of publishing.
European Council diplomats insist that proper protocols were followed during the meeting. However, Ms in ‘t Veld referred to pictures of Mr Erdogan with Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, the two previous EU presidents, in which both were given equal billing.
Due to Covid-related travel restrictions, the Commission’s protocol experts were unable to attend the meeting. Extra measures are now being put into place to make sure Mrs Von der Leyen is not subjected to the same treatment during other overseas tours.
The gaffe may reignite calls for the two presidential positions to be merged into one job. During his time in office, Mr Juncker said that “Europe would be easier to understand if one captain was steering the ship”, although national leaders have mostly snubbed the idea.