During a recent high-level meeting among EU politicians in Turkey, a gaffe involving the number of chairs for the people in attendance resulted in Ursula von der Leyen being without seating while her male counterparts had all taken their spots. Charles Michel and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, each took one of the two seats moments apart, leaving von der Leyen awkwardly standing on the stage, looking at the two other politicians.
The timing of this gaffe couldn’t be worse for the optics of the situation: Turkey is in hot water in the international community for pulling out of the Istanbul Convention, a set of agreements that prescribe laws to prevent violence against women. Von der Leyen and Michel, both of whom are presidents of the European Commission, are of equal rank. As such, many found it strange that Michel took a seat and didn’t even offer his to von der Leyen, his colleague.
Michel offered an explanation for the gaffe on Facebook, stating that “The strict interpretation by the Turkish services of the rules of protocol produced a distressing situation: the differentiated, even reduced, treatment of the President of the European Commission.
“The few images that were shown gave the impression that I would have been insensitive to this situation. Nothing is further neither from reality nor from my deep feelings. Nor from the principles of respect which seem essential to me.”
Notably, Michel did not apologize in the statement and tried to redirect the conversation back to the discussion between the presidents of the European Commission and Turkish president Erdogan.
Turkey, on the other hand, has stated that the seating arrangements were made at the direction of the EU. “This means that the seating arrangement was made according to their suggestions. Our protocol units came together previously and their demands were realized,” said foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu
“The Ankara visit of Presidents von der Leyen and Michel should have been a message of firmness and unity of Europe’s approach to Turkey. Unfortunately, it has resulted in a symbol of disunity as the presidents failed to stand together when it was needed. We expect more from Europe’s foreign policy”, stated Manfred Weber, chairman of the European People’s Party.
Many politicians pointed out that the optics of this gaffe made it appear as though Turkey was making a statement regarding women’s rights and equality. Unlike national governments, MEPs of the EU itself are more openly critical of Turkey’s treatment of women. Several female MEPs have called on Turkey and Michel to apologize for the gaffe, which they believe was evidence of latent sexism.