Von der Leyen stood staring at them, gestured with her right hand and appeared to say “um” or “ehm.”
She was ultimately offered a beige couch about 12 feet away, opposite Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who occupies a lower-status rank in typical diplomatic protocol.
Von der Leyen “was clearly surprised, and that is something which you can see from the video,” her spokesman Eric Mamer said Wednesday, confirming the displeasure of the leader who is the first woman to hold her position. She “should have been seated in exactly the same manner as the president of the European Council and the Turkish president.”
Mamer said the fault lay with the Turkish officials who prepared the room.
Von der Leyen, surprised by her sofa seat, chose to proceed with the substance of the meeting rather than demanding an immediate fix, Mamer said.
But “not making an issue out of something in public is not the same thing as saying that it has no importance,” he said.
Turkey’s top diplomat, foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, said Thursday that his country was facing “unjust accusations.” Turkey followed diplomatic rules of rank and obeyed E.U. requests about the arrangements, he said.
In the complicated world of diplomatic protocol, Michel’s position outranks von der Leyen’s. When the two leaders jointly meet others, Michel is greeted first and leads the discussions on behalf of the European Union, a situation that results in the male president getting the first handshake and the female president trailing behind. Apart from that distinction, the leaders are typically — but not always — shown the same respect, according to von der Leyen’s predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, who told Politico Europe on Wednesday that he also had sometimes been relegated to the sofa seat.
Michel, who has come under sharp criticism from von der Leyen’s defenders for not appearing to stick up for her, initially wrote an explanation on his Facebook page on Wednesday in which he did not apologize. But with the situation continuing to boil on Thursday, he went further, saying on Belgium’s LN24 television network that “I deeply regret the image given and the impression of a kind of disdain or contempt for the president of the European Commission and women in general.”
“In the moment, I was convinced that to react in whatever manner would risk seeming to be paternalistic. It may have been an error on my part,” he said. “Also, there was substantial work to be done at the meeting and I was convinced that reacting would produce a much graver incident that would affect relations with Turkey.”
Michel’s chief of protocol, Dominique Marro, said in a statement Thursday that E.U. diplomats had been not been granted access to the meeting room ahead of time because, they were told, it was too close to Erdogan’s office. Turkish officials agreed to a separate request to upgrade von der Leyen’s seating in a dining room, he said.
Public outrage was quick and sharp.
“ ‘Ehm’ is the new term for ‘that’s not how EU-Turkey relationship should be’. #GiveHerASeat #EU #Turkey #womensrights,” tweeted Sergey Lagodinsky, a German member of the European Parliament who chairs the legislature’s delegation to a joint E.U.-Turkish parliamentary committee.
Another member of the European Parliament, Dutch lawmaker Sophie in ‘t Veld, noted that at meetings between Erdogan and the prior pair of E.U. presidents, who were both men, the three leaders were seated next to one another, in equivalent chairs.
“It wasn’t a coincidence it was deliberate,” she wrote on Twitter, where some people explained away the incident as more about social distancing than protocol.
Critics had already been taking aim at the visit, which came two weeks after Erdogan pulled Turkey out of an international treaty aimed at preventing violence against women known as the Istanbul Convention. Erdogan allies said the move did not mean that women’s rights were being downgraded.
As head of the European Commission, von der Leyen leads the E.U.’s executive wing and oversees the bloc’s membership negotiations with Turkey, which are on life support. Michel represents the leaders of the 27 individual member nations of the E.U.
Before the episode of chair-and-sofa diplomacy, the three leaders posed for pictures standing together, von der Leyen to Erdogan’s left and Michel to his right in a more standard representation of their status. Only afterward did von der Leyen seem to get ushered to the side.
The official E.U. video was shot from behind von der Leyen, showing the scene playing out from her perspective.
After the meeting, von der Leyen made no direct mention of the incident. But she did express concern about Turkey’s record on women’s rights.
“I am deeply worried about the fact that Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention,” she told reporters. “This is about protecting women and protecting children against violence. And this is clearly the wrong signal right now.”