An image of Ursula von der Leyen, the sole attending female leader, being the only person left without a chair during a meeting in Ankara involving the EU’s two presidents and Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has triggered an avalanche of criticism.
Von der Leyen, the commission’s first female president, was visibly irritated at the start of the talks with 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.
The awkward scene was played out ahead of a three-hour meeting with Erdoğan 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 had appeared to make a bee-line for the top spot next to Erdoğan as the party entered, offered little evidence of regret.
Von der Leyen, the former German defence minister who has led the EU’s executive branch since December 2019, had to make do with a second-rank seat on a sofa opposite Turkey’s foreign minister.
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 deal under which Brussels had provided funding in return for stopping the movement of migrants to Greece.
A spokesman for Michel did not respond to a request for comment.