BRUSSELS (AP) – Gender issues took center stage in Brussels on Wednesday, a day after Ursula von der Leyen, one of the EU’s most powerful leaders, was treated as a second-level official during a visit to Ankara.
Von der Leyen – the President of the European Commission – and the Head of the European Council, Charles Michel, traveled to Turkey on Tuesday for talks with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, focusing on EU-Turkey relations. After being led into a large chat room with Erdogan, TV footage showed only two chairs had been laid out in front of the EU and Turkish flags for the three leaders.
Michel and Erdogan took the chairs while von der Leyen looked at the two men, expressing his astonishment with an “ehm” and a gesture of disappointment. Von der Leyen ended up sitting on a large beige sofa, away from his male counterparts.
According to a European source, the meeting between the three leaders lasted more than two and a half hours.
“The important thing is that the President should have been seated in exactly the same way as the President of the European Council and the President of Turkey,” said European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer, adding that Von der Leyen was surprised by the arrangements.
“She decided to proceed anyway, focusing on substance over protocol, but let me nevertheless stress that the president expects the institution she represents to be treated with the required protocol, and she therefore asked his team to make all the appropriate contacts in order to ensure that such an incident does not happen again in the future, ”said Mamer.
He added that Von der Leyen’s protocol team had not traveled to Turkey with her due to the coronavirus pandemic.
There was no immediate comment from the Turkish Presidency or the European Council.
The diplomatic incident was widely commented on on social media. MEP 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 in chairs side by side.
“And no, it was not a coincidence, it was deliberate,” wrote in ‘t Veld on Twitter, wondering why Michel was “silent.”
“Ehm” is the new term for “this is not how EU-Turkey relations should be,” said Sergey Lagodinsky, another Member of the European Parliament, using the hashtags #GiveHerASeat and #womensrights. “
Erdogan last month withdrew Turkey from a key European convention to tackle violence against women, which drew criticism from EU officials. The move was a blow to the women’s rights movement in Turkey, which claims domestic violence and murders of women are on the rise.
Von der Leyen called on Erdogan to reverse his decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention.
“Human rights issues are not negotiable. We have been very clear on this. We urge Turkey to reverse its decision as it is the first binding international instrument to combat violence against women and children, ”she said.
Asked whether the committee considered the incident to be specifically gender-related, Mamer said Von der Leyen visited Ankara as president of a European institution.
“Being a man or a woman doesn’t change the fact that she should have been seated under the same protocol arrangements as the other two participants,” said Mamer. “She took the opportunity to specifically address the Istanbul Convention and women’s rights. I think the message sent was clear. “
Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this story.