EU Commission’s female boss left without a chair at Turkey meeting

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was left standing without a chair at a top-level EU meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Tuesday.

Von der Leyen, the head of the EU’s executive arm, stood visibly perplexed as Erdoğan and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, settled into two gilded Ottoman-style chairs flanked by EU and Turkish flags at the presidential palace in Ankara.

“Em?” was her response as she looked at Erdoğan and Michel questioningly.

Von der Leyen and Michel were in Ankara to hold talks with Erdoğan during a low point in Europes’ relations with Turkey. Among the main points of contention was Erdoğan’s decision two weeks ago to withdraw Turkey from the 2011 Istanbul Convention, an international treaty to prevent violence against women.

After an awkward moment of silence, von der Leyen, the first female president of the Brussels-based European Commission, was offered a seat on a beige sofa four metres away. Opposite her sat Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, foreign minister of Turkey.

“And no, it wasn’t a coincidence, it was deliberate,” Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said on Twitter. “Why was @eucopresident (Michel) silent?”

Von der Leyen should have been treated "exactly in the same manner" as Michel, European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said.

"The president of the commission was clearly surprised," he said. "She does consider that these issues are important and need to be treated appropriately, which they clearly were not."

Erdoğan’s last meeting with the EU's top officials, held in Brussels, was an all-male affair. He held talks with then European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk in the EU capital in 2016. The three were seated together.

juncker

Von der Leyen showed no signs of bad feeling at a press conference at the EU diplomatic mission in Ankara later in the day, saying her and Michel had a “good first meeting” with Erdoğan.

While stressing that respect for fundamental rights and the rule of law were crucial for the EU, von der Leyen said Brussels was ready to “work on a new momentum” with Turkey ahead of a summit of the political leaders of EU member states in June.

But she did express her and the EU’s stern opposition to Turkey’s withdrawal from the convention.

"I am deeply worried," she told reporters. "This is about protecting women and protecting children against violence. And this is clearly the wrong signal right now."

Before becoming commission president, von de Leyen held successive positions in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet between 2005 and 2019, including as minister of defence and minister of family affairs, senior citizens, women and youth. She is a member of Merkel’s governing centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and was born and raised in Brussels to German parents.

The seating arrangements may have been "gaming" and Erdoğan's "attempt to show this was on his turf where he is in control at a time at which the EU is setting out conditions for Turkey to meet," said Alexander Clarkson, lecturer in German and European studies at King's College London. 

Erdoğan, a devout Muslim and graduate of a theology school, served as mayor of Istanbul and prime minister before becoming president in August 2014. His wife Emine wears an Islamist-style headscarf.

Turkey withdrew from the convention because it had been “hijacked by a group attempting to normalise homosexuality”, Erdoğan said at the time. The agreement was incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values, said Fahrettin Altun, his director of communications.

While Erdoğan says he supports women’s rights, he has declared on several occasions that a woman’s primary role should be as a mother. 

Von der Leyen has seven children.  

In 2014, Erdoğan said women need equal respect rather than equality.

Women cannot do all the work done by men because it was against their "delicate nature", he said.

"Our religion regards motherhood very highly," Erdoğan said. "Feminists don't understand that, they reject motherhood."

Just over a quarter of adult women in Turkey are employed, or 8.3 million, compared with 60 percent of men, according to official data. The female labour force shrunk by almost 1 million last year from 2019.

(This story was updated with academic in fifteenth paragraph.)