Talks to warm relations between the European Union and Turkey in the Turkish capital, Ankara, got off to an awkward start Tuesday when one of the EU leaders – the only woman in the room – was left without a chair.
In video of the meeting, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Europe Council President Charles Michel are seen being greeted warmly by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they arrived for the talks.
The two leaders were then led into an ornate meeting room, where the three stood side by side and posed for pictures. But when it came time to sit, there were only two chairs, in which the two men sat. On the video, von der Leyen can be heard saying “Hmm” or “Ehm,” and was offered a seat on a couch to the side of other two leaders.
A former German defense minister, von der Leyen leads the European Commission. Michel, a former Belgian prime minister, leads the bloc’s executive wing and represents the leaders of the 27 individual member nations of the EU in negotiations. They are equals in rank and status.
The incident did not go unnoticed. From his Twitter account, German European Parliament Member Sergey Lagodinsky referenced von der Leyen’s non-verbal reaction, writing “'Ehm' is the new term for ‘that’s not how EU-Turkey relationship should be,’” followed by the hashtags “#GiveHerASeat #EU #Turkey #womensrights.”
Lagodinsky is chairman of the legislature’s delegation to a joint EU-Turkish parliamentary committee.
Dutch EU parliament member Sophie in ‘t Veld on her Twitter account, posted a picture of previous EU meetings in which the leaders, all men, were seated next to one another, in equivalent chairs. She said, “And it wasn’t a coincidence. It was deliberate.” She also questions why Michel took his seat without a word or gesture to von der Leyen.
Von der Leyen herself did not directly reference the incident following the talks, only expressing concern about Turkey’s record on human rights, particularly women’s rights.
But during an EU Commission briefing Wednesday in Brussels, spokesman Eric Mamer said the commission president was surprised. He said she should have been offered the same seating arrangement as the other two leaders. But he was quick to add that von der Leyen “chose to prioritize substance over questions of form or protocol.”
Tuesday’s talks were intended to improve relations between Turkey and the EU that have been strained since a coup attempt in 2016 prompted a crackdown on civil rights in the country.