The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who is the first woman to be the EC’s president, was snubbed on Wednesday in a gaffe at talks between the EU and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
An awkward moment presented itself as the powerful EC chief recognized that the two men at the meeting, European Council President Charles Michel and Erdogan, sat in two identical gilded chairs that were positioned for a two-way meeting.
The awkward moment continued, however, as neither of the two leaders stirred themselves to rearrange chairs so that the three could sit together, and Von Der Leyen relegated herself to a sofa a bit away from the chairs.
Women’s rights on agenda at meeting where von Der Leyen was snubbed
The strange scene played out at a meeting in which, ironically, women’s rights were on the agenda.
The EC President not only admitted after the meeting that she was “surprised” the gaffe had occurred, but has demanded such a snub would never repeated.
The veteran politician was visibly angry as the scene unfolded between Turkish leader Erdogan and Charles Michel, the former Belgian prime minister who serves as President of the European council.
“Umm,” she muttered under her breath, with a small gesticulation directed toward the seats, as Michel and Erdogan settled themselves in the place of prominence at the head of the gilded room in the presidential complex as the talks got underway.
Von Der Leyen made to sit 12 feet away from Michel, Erdogan
The seeming slap in the face of the female politician scene was the prelude before a three-hour long meeting with Erdogan in which one of the issues raised by the EU leaders was women’s rights.
This issue had come to the fore recently in light of Turkey’s withdrawal from an international convention on gender-based violence.
The international press who were in the room noted that Michel appeared to go straight for the top spot, next to Erdogan as all the parties entered the room — and more to the point, he appeared to make no move to rectify the embarrassing situation or show any regret about it.
As it was, von Der Leyen had to make do with a seat all alone on a sofa, perched opposite not her fellow leaders, but the foreign minster of Turkey.
Yah not supposed to be like this
— Bruno Maçães (@MacaesBruno) April 6, 2021
In what is an unusual move, Von der Leyen’s spokesperson openly acknowledged the snub, making the commission president’s feelings clear regarding over the issue. The spokesperson noted that the incident had “sharpened” von der Leyen’s her “focus” on the issue of equal rights during the discussions.
Her spokesman stated “The president of the commission was clearly surprised and that is something you can see from the video … The protocol level of our president is exactly the same as that of the president of the European Council.
“Our president is a member of the European Council in her own right and normally when she goes to foreign countries she was treated in exactly the same way as the President of the European Council.
“The President expects that the institution that she represents be treated with the required protocol, and she has therefore asked her team to take all appropriate contacts in order to ensure that such an incident does not occur in the future.”
Spokesman directly addresses snubbing of EC President
The spokesperson went on to say that the Commission President made a calculated decision to carry on with the meeting despite the gaffe, intentional or not.
“The President’s assertiveness was clearly on display in that she did not walk away from the meeting, she took part in the meeting, and played her full role,” the spokesperson stated.
There has been no response as yet to press inquiries about Michel’s conduct, which were directed to his spokesperson.
The situation has rankled women around Europe, who continue to deal with discrimination and marginalization in the workplace – even in the gilded halls of Parliaments.
Iratxe García Pérez, a Spanish MEP who leads the group of Socialist and Democrats in the European Parliament, tweeted her displeasure by saying: “First they withdraw from the Istanbul convention and now they leave the president of European commission without a seat in an official visit. Shameful.”
Former EU Commissioner Violeta Bulc tweeted “What a diplomatic fiasco” after the incident.
However, the situation was not addressed directly by either von der Leyen or Michel in the usual press conference after the meeting. “We have come to Turkey to give our relationship a new momentum and in this respect we had an interesting first meeting with President Erdoğan,” Von der Leyen stated to reporters at that time.
She stated that Turkey had sent a “wrong signal” by leaving the convention on preventing violence against women, which had been signed in Istanbul in 2011.
Turkey refuses to address leaving convention, continues to get EU payout for migrants
“I am deeply worried by the fact that Turkey withdraws from the Istanbul convention,” the EC President said. “This is about protecting women and protecting children from the threat of violence”.
It was notable that Turkish President Erdoğan did not take part in the joint statement.
The main fruit of the meeting was that the EU agreed to extend the five-year, €6 billion (£5.2 billion) agreement according to which Brussels had provided funding in return for stopping the movement of migrants to Greece.