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Sofagate in Ankara: EU’s von der Leyen left standing in meeting with Erdoğan

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European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen was left standing at a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at his presidential palace in Ankara on Tuesday, sparking a debate about Erdoğan’s poor record of respect for women and their rights.

A video before the start of the meeting shows European Council President Charles Michel and von der Leyen entering the room along with Erdoğan and some Turkish officials where they will hold a meeting. While Erdoğan and Michel immediately are seated, von der Leyen is seen standing, saying “Ehm” and looking around to find somewhere to sit. Finally, she sits on a distant sofa as the press takes photos of Michel and Erdoğan with a visibly disgruntled von der Leyen looking on.

The video went viral among social media users in Turkey, with many criticizing the Turkish presidency for violating the rules of protocol. There was also criticism of the EU, with many saying the scene was a result of the support the EU gave to an autocratic leader who has a poor record on women’s rights.

“Turkey’s Presidency Chief of Protocol should have known better after all high rank guests, incl Kings&Queens, the country hosted as a Republic, not to mention visits during the Ottoman Era. A major protocol failure – and forgotten courtesy to allow female guests be seated first,” tweeted journalist Şebnem Arsu, who writes for prominent news outlets such as The New York Times and Der Spiegel.


The diplomatic faux pas has also stirred controversy in Brussels, according to Agence France-Presse.

The European Commission issued a statement on Wednesday slamming the treatment received by von der Leyen in Ankara on Tuesday. “The president of the commission was clearly surprised,” European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said, insisting von der Leyen should have been treated “exactly in the same manner” as Michel. “She does consider that these issues are important and need to be treated appropriately, which they clearly were not,” Mamer said.

Mamer said the problem surrounding von der Leyen’s seating during the meeting with Erdoğan had “sharpened her focus on the issue.”There was no immediate comment from Michel’s spokesman or the Turkish presidency over the incident.

The apparent snub came at a delicate moment as the EU and Turkey look to rebuild ties despite concerns over Ankara’s record on rights, including the protection of women.

Erdoğan had angered Brussels ahead of the visit by the bloc’s chiefs by announcing he was withdrawing Turkey from the global Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women and children.

Speaking after the meeting with the Turkish leader, von der Leyen stressed that “human rights issues are non-negotiable.”

“I am deeply worried about the fact that Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention” von der Leyen said.

“This is about protecting women, and protecting children against violence, and this is clearly the wrong signal right now.”

The perceived slight to the first woman ever to occupy one of the EU’s top two roles sparked anger among some in Brussels.

“First they withdraw from the Istanbul Convention and now they leave the President of European Commission without a seat in an official visit. Shameful. #WomensRights,” wrote Spanish European Parliament member Iratxe Garcia Perez.

German MEP Sergey Lagodinsky wrote of von der Leyen’s utterance that “‘Ehm’ is the new term for ‘that’s not how EU-Turkey relationship should be’.”

But not all the ire was directed at the Turkish side.

Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld was left questioning why Michel was “silent” as his female colleague was left without a seat.

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