Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s meeting on Tuesday with the European Union’s two presidents has raised eyebrows after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen appeared to be left standing while her male counterparts settled into two gilded chairs at the focal point of the room.
In a video of the awkward moment in Ankara, von der Leyen seems unsure of where to sit, gestures with her right hand and says “ehm” as Erdogan and European Council President Charles Michel take their seats.
Von der Leyen was eventually offered a seat on a nearby sofa, opposite Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who occupies a lower-status rank in diplomatic protocol.
In previous meetings the three presidents have all sat together.
Eric Mamer, chief spokesperson for the European Commission, said von der Leyen “was clearly surprised and that is something which you can see from the video.” He added that “it’s difficult to judge the reasons why she was offered one type of seat rather than another, that’s something which you’d have to ask the Turkish authorities about.”
He added that when it comes to “the view of the Commission abroad, what I can say is that 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 generally, normally, when she goes to foreign countries, she is treated in exactly the same way as the President of the European Council would be.”
As leader of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive branch and most powerful institution, von der Leyen is one of the most influential women in the bloc. She previously served as Germany’s defense minister.
Turkey strongly rejected accusations that von der Leyen was treated unfairly due to her gender.
“We would not want to come up with a statement but there are unfair accusations towards Turkey about the importance that we give to women and about other issues. Turkey is a rooted state,” Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu told a news conference in Ankara on Thursday.
“In every visit, when we go or accept visitors, protocol teams come together ahead of the visit and talks about the regulations,” Cavusoglu said, adding that protocol teams from the EU and Turkey had met ahead of the planned meeting.
“Turkey has met the demands of EU side during the meeting that happened in presidents’ room. In other words, the seating was arranged according to the suggestions of EU side. Full stop.”
Michel blamed Turkey’s “strict interpretation” of protocol rules for the diplomatic hiccup.
“Our visit marked an important moment in the complex process of improving relations between the European Union and Turkey. It was the result of meticulous preparations as well as a diplomatic effort of many months to bring that country to a more constructive approach in its relationship with the EU,” he said, writing on his Facebook page Wednesday.
“And despite all good intentions, the strict interpretation by Turkish services of protocol rules led to a sorry situation: the differentiated treatment, indeed diminished, of the President of the European Commission.”
Michel added: “In the moment, while recognizing the regrettable character of the situation, we chose not to make it worse with a public incident, and to prioritize at this early stage of our meeting the main point of the political discussion we were about to start, Ursula and I, with our hosts.”
The incident is especially uncomfortable considering the EU’s recent condemnation of Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty aimed at preventing violence against women.