Ursula von der Leyen, the European commission’s first female president, was “surprised” after being left without a chair during a meeting of the EU’s two presidents and Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and has demanded such a snub is never repeated.
The German head of the commission was left visibly irritated at the start of the talks in Ankara with her two male counterparts, Erdoğan and Charles Michel, the former Belgian prime minister who is president of the European council.
“Ehm,” she muttered, with a small gesticulation directed at the occupied seats, as Michel and Erdoğan settled themselves at the head of the gilded room in the presidential complex at the start of the talks.
The awkward scene played out before a three-hour meeting with Erdoğan on Tuesday where one of the issues raised by the EU leaders was women’s rights in light of Turkey’s withdrawal from a convention on gender-based violence.
Michel, who appeared to make a beeline for the top spot next to Erdoğan as the party entered, offered little evidence of regret. Von der Leyen had to make do with a second-rank seat on a sofa opposite Turkey’s foreign minister.
On Wednesday, Von der Leyen’s spokesperson made clear the commission president’s feelings over the issue, noting that the incident had “sharpened her focus” on the issue of equal rights during the discussions that followed.
He said: “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 to 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”.
The spokesperson suggested that the commission president took a calculated decision to carry on the meeting despite the affront.
“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 added.
Iratxe García Pérez, the Spanish MEP who leads the Socialist and Democrats group in the European parliament, tweeted: “First they withdraw from the Istanbul convention and now they leave the president of European commission without a seat in an official visit. Shameful.”
“What a diplomatic fiasco,” tweeted Violeta Bulc, a former EU commissioner.
Neither Von der Leyen nor Michel made any mention of the diplomatic gaffe in a post-meeting press conference. “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 said.
She added Turkey had sent a “wrong signal” by leaving the convention on preventing violence against women signed in 2011.
“I am deeply worried by the fact that Turkey withdraws from the Istanbul convention,” she said. “This is about protecting women and protecting children from the threat of violence”.
Erdoğan did not take part in the statement. The main result of the meeting was that the EU agreed to extend the five-year, €6bn (£5.2bn) under which Brussels had provided funding in return for stopping the movement of migrants to Greece.
In a statement late on Wednesday, Michel said he was “sorry” that he had appeared indifferent in the video to Von der Leyen’s “distressing situation”.
He said: “I am therefore sorry for two reasons. First, by the impression given that I would have been indifferent to the protocol awkwardness vis-à-vis Ursula.
“All the more so since I am honored to participate in this European project, of which two major institutions out of four are headed by women, Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde. And also proud that a woman, the first in history, succeeded me as Prime Minister of Belgium.
“Finally, I am saddened, because this situation has overshadowed the major and beneficial geopolitical work that we carried out together in Ankara, and of which I hope that Europe will reap the fruits.
In his statement, however, Michel said the incident had occurred as a result of the Turkish government applying a strict interpretation of ‘protocol’, in a comment that appeared to clear both himself and Ankara of any blame.