If diplomacy is part theatre, acted out on meticulously crafted sets, then a protocol blunder this week turned a top-level visit by European Union leaders to Turkey into high drama.
Whether by design or by oversight, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive arm, was left awkwardly standing as her colleague Charles Michel, the president of the council representing the bloc’s 27 members, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey took the only two available seats between the EU and Turkish flags.
“Uhm …” von der Leyen was heard saying in a video as she stood, lingering, in the grand room in the Turkish presidential palace Tuesday while Michel and Erdogan settled in their gilded seats, perfectly centred for a photo op.
Still standing, she raised a questioning hand.
She ended up propped up by cushions on a side sofa several feet away, and lower than the two men. Adding further insult to the faux pas, her position was mirrored on the other side of the room by Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, whom she outranks. Von der Leyen, who is president of the European Commission, and Michel, who heads the European Council, are of equal rank in the EU hierarchy.
“There’s a reason why protocol arrangements exist: to try to take the element of atmospherics and drama out of the equation,” said Ian Lesser, the director of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels. “These things are not supposed to happen.”
Twitter users in Europe swiftly reacted with the hashtag #GiveHerASeat.” Many saw the moment as symbolic of the cultural differences between Erdogan’s Turkey and the European Union, coming just days after the Turkish leader withdrew his country from the Istanbul Convention, a treaty that seeks to protect women from gender-driven violence.
But if the incident was symbolic of Turkey’s poor record on women’s rights, it also reflected the European Union’s inability to forge a united front in dealing with a country that is a hugely important neighbour and a candidate to become a member of the bloc.
After Michel declined to turn the situation around by offering von der Leyen his seat, the institutions offered diverging views of what had happened and why in a post-mortem on Wednesday.
Von der Leyen “should have been seated exactly in the same manner as the president of the European Council and the Turkish president,” said her spokesman, Eric Mamer.
He added that von der Leyen, the first woman to hold that post, “expects 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.”
Michel issued a statement late Wednesday evening, blaming Turkish officials’ “strict interpretation” of the rules of protocol for producing “a distressing situation: the differentiated, even reduced, treatment of the president of the European Commission.”
In a post on his official Facebook page, Michel said that the impression that he had been “insensitive” was untrue, and that he had carried on with the meeting so as not to not make matters worse by causing a public scene.
Michel’s reaction, or lack thereof, was not lost on European legislators and observers. Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch lawmaker in the European Parliament, tweeted photos of Erdogan meeting with previous European Council and European Commission presidents, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, seated in equally ceremonious arrangements next to one another.
“Why was @eucopresident silent?” she asked, tagging Michel’s official account handle.
Others wondered: Had it been a protocol mishap or an intended slight, given Erdogan’s penchant for drama? Both are possible under his increasingly autocratic rule, Turkish analysts said, though they were inclined to see it as an oversight.
“Both sides are to share the blame,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Turkey’s foreign ministry should have warned the presidency that the two EU leaders act as co-chairs, she said, and EU officials should have corrected the mistake.
“The omission is a natural outcome of Erdogan living in an all-male political environment and the EU being intimidated by the Turkish president,” she added.
Either way, it came a “terrible time,” said Nigar Goksel, the top Turkey expert at the International Crisis Group, especially because of the recent withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention.
According to data gathered by UN Women, the United Nations agency for women’s rights, 38% of Turkish women experience violence from their partner at least once in their lifetime, and more than 1 in 10 was subjected to domestic violence in the past 12 months. In the 2021 Global Gender Gap report, an annual review by the World Economic Forum that covers economics, politics, education and health, Turkey ranked 133 among 156 countries.
The protocol fail in Tuesday’s meeting comes at a crucial time in Turkey’s relations with the European Union.
In recent months, Turkey has emphasised a desire to improve relations with the bloc and to revive its process for joining. The meeting was intended to build momentum in a relationship that has been fraught with disagreements in recent years on issues like migration, maritime borders and customs arrangements.
“Whatever the realities on the protocol side, the incident clearly underscores the fact that Turkey was blind to the optics of how this would appear,” said Lesser of the German Marshall Fund. Those optics, he added, “will only underscore the sense that Europe is not on the same page when it comes to values, when it comes to diversity, inclusion and gender equality.”
That point was not lost on the offended party.
Von der Leyen “seized the opportunity to insist on the issues related to women’s rights in general and to the Istanbul Convention in particular,” Mamer, her spokesman, said. “It would have been discussed certainly in any case, but obviously this sharpened her focus on the issue.”
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