BRUSSELS (AP) – Gender issues were at the center of attention in Brussels on Wednesday, a day after Ursula von der Leyen, one of the EU’s most powerful leaders, was treated as a second-rate official during a visit to Ankara.
Von der Leyen – President of the European Commission – and President of the European Council Charles Michel visited Turkey on Tuesday for talks with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, focusing on EU-Turkey relations. After being led into a large room for discussions with Erdogan, television images showed that only two chairs had been laid in front of the EU and the Turkish flags for the three leaders.
Michel and Erdogan took the chairmen as von der Leyen stood looking at both men, expressing her astonishment with an “ehm”
According to an EU source, the meeting between the three leaders lasted more than two and a half hours.
“The important thing is that the president should have sat in exactly the same way as the president of the European Council and the Turkish president,” said EU Commission spokesman Eric Mamer, adding that Von der Leyen was surprised by the arrangements.
“Nevertheless, she decided to go ahead and prioritize the substance over the protocol, but still let me emphasize that the president expects the institution she represents to be treated with the required protocol, and she has therefore asked her team to take all relevant contacts to ensure that such an incident does not occur in the future, ”said Mamer.
He added that Von der Leyen’s protocol team did not travel 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 extensively commented on social media. European legislator Sophie in ‘t Veld published photos of previous meetings between Michel and Von der Leyen’s predecessors with Erdogan, with the trio of men sitting in chairs next to each other.
“And no, it was not accidental, it was deliberate,” ‘t Veld wrote on Twitter, asking why Michel remained “silent.”
“‘Ehm’ is the new expression for ‘this is not the relationship between the EU and Turkey,’ said Sergey Lagodinsky, another Member of the European Parliament, using the hashtags #GiveHerASeat and #womensrights.”
Last month, Erdogan withdrew Turkey from a major European convention aimed at combating violence against women, sparking criticism from EU officials. The movement was a blow to Turkey’s women’s rights movement, which says domestic violence and murder 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 were very aware of that. We urge Turkey to reverse its decision because it is the first international binding instrument to combat violence against women and children, ”she said.
Asked whether the Commission considered the incident specifically gender-related, Mamer said Von der Leyen traveled to Ankara as president of an EU institution.
“Being a man or a woman does not change the fact that she should have complied with the same protocol arrangements as the other two participants,” Mamer said. “She took the opportunity to specifically address the Istanbul Convention and women’s rights. I think the message sent was ready. ”
Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this story.