The meeting between the presidents of the EU institutions and Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave rise to a controversy. Ursula von der Leyen was placed in the background during these exchanges, in a situation that some considered “sexist” and “humiliating”.
A controversy erupted in Brussels after the meeting between the presidents of the EU institutions and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on April 6 in Ankara. During this meeting, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, was placed back on a couch while the Turkish Head of State and the President of the European Council each had an armchair in the center of the room.
“President von der Leyen was surprised. She decided to go ahead and prioritize the substance. But that does not imply that she does not attach importance to the incident ”, explained shortly after his spokesperson Eric Mamer.
The scene was filmed and widely shared on social media. Under the hashtag #Sofagate, it prompted many comments on the unequal treatment between the two heads of the European institutions, and its sexist character.
“Ehm,” murmurs the former German defense minister, apparently distraught, on the video. She does not seem to know where to settle as the President of the European Council Charles Michel and the Turkish President sit in the two armchairs prepared for the meeting.
Ursula von der Leyen then sits on a sofa, behind the two men, facing the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, whose function is inferior to her in the protocol hierarchy.
“Extensive discussions” despite the incident
The European Council, however, made it known that its President took precedence over the Commission for International Protocol. Despite the incident, “discussions were very extensive with the Turkish president and Madame von der Leyen was able to exercise her role,” he said.
No arrangements were made other than those requested by an EU delegation which prepared for the visit
“It is up to the Turkish authorities, in charge of the meeting, to explain why this type of seat was offered to Madame von der Leyen,” said Eric Mamer, adding that an EU delegation in Ankara had participated in the preparations.
“No arrangements have been made other than those requested by an EU delegation which prepared for the visit,” a Turkish official told AFP at the end of the day. As AFP recalls, the rebuff comes at a delicate diplomatic moment, as the EU and Turkey seek to renew their relations after a year of tension.
Europeans do not hide their concerns about respect for human rights in Turkey and in particular President Erdogan’s decision to leave the Istanbul Convention on the prevention of violence against women and children.
At the end of the meeting, Ursula von der Leyen did not mince words during the press conference. “I am deeply concerned that Turkey has withdrawn from the Istanbul convention,” she said.
“It’s about protecting women, and protecting children from violence, and that’s clearly the wrong signal right now,” she added. “Human rights issues are not negotiable,” she insisted.
“The issue of human rights is a high priority in the relationship between the EU and Turkey. It will be taken into account in the general analysis which will be submitted to European leaders at their summit in June, ”his spokesperson warned.
Numerous angry reactions in Europe
The Ankara incident aroused the anger of several European elected officials in Brussels. “First they are withdrawing from the Istanbul convention and now they are leaving the President of the European Commission without a seat on an official visit. It is shameful. #WomensRights ”, protested the president of the Socialist group in the European Parliament, the Spaniard Iratxe Garcia Perez, in a message on her Twitter account.
Charles Michel was not spared by the critics. Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld wondered why the President of the Council had remained “silent” while his colleague found himself without a seat.
In France, the incident also caused a reaction. Gilbert Collard, the European deputy of the National Rally thus evokes on Twitter the “sexism of Erdogan and the complicit inertia of the President of the European Council Charles Michel.”
Look at the despicable #Sexism of#Erdogan and the complicit inertia of the President of the European Council Charles Michel who humiliates the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen by relegating her to a couch: pic.twitter.com/rgRbf5ULb2
– Gilbert Collard (@GilbertCollard) April 7, 2021
The mayor Les Républicains (LR) of Nice, Christian Estrosi, considers that this is “an insult to women and all Europeans”, which would reveal the “ideological extremism” of President Erdogan.
The behavior of @RTErdogan to Ursula @vonderleyen is an insult to women and to all Europeans, revealing once again its ideological extremism. Europe must react and speak out with one voice against Erdogan’s repeated provocations and offenses. pic.twitter.com/SGawv9OePb
– Christian Estrosi (@cestrosi) April 7, 2021
Bruno Rétailleau, Senator LR, denounces for his part a “provocation of Erdogan”.
I deeply regret that Charles Michel and Ursula Von der Leyen were unable to resist Erdogan’s provocation. This image of submission is terribly humiliating for Europe! pic.twitter.com/mI5W1r4ASl
– Bruno Retailleau (@BrunoRetailleau) April 7, 2021
On the left, Clémentine Autain, deputy of rebellious France, does not hide his anger and affirms: “Erdogan humiliates von der Leyen and stages his abject contempt for women, helped by the cowardice of Charles Michel.”
After withdrawing Turkey from the Istanbul Convention against violence against women, Erdogan humiliates von der Leyen and stages his abject contempt for women, aided by the cowardice of Charles Michel. How long are we going to put up with his insults? https://t.co/qHEcf79eDk
– Clementine Autain (@Clem_Autain) April 7, 2021