Turkey rejects claims of sexist snub towards von der Leyen

·4 min read

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey on Thursday strongly rejected accusations that it snubbed Ursula von der Leyen — one of the European Union’s most powerful executives — because of her gender after a protocol gaffe during a meeting at the Turkish presidential palace ignited a public uproar.

Turkey insisted that the EU's own protocol requests were applied, an assertion that was left unanswered by bloc officials trying to downplay the significance of an incident that also revealed a lack of unity among them.

Von der Leyen — the European Commission president — and European Council chief Charles Michel met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for talks on Turkey-EU relations on Tuesday. The guests were led into a large room for discussions with Erdogan, but only two chairs had been set out in front of the EU and Turkish flags for the three leaders.

Von der Leyen stood looking at the men who took the chairs, expressing her astonishment with a “ehm” sound and a gesture of disappointment. She was later seen seated on a large beige sofa, away from her male counterparts.

The images drew intense criticism on social media and accusations of gender discrimination.

“A woman’s place is not on a by-standing sofa! A woman’s place is (at) the decision-making table!" wrote Evelyn Regner, the chair of the European Parliament's woman’s rights committee, while other lawmakers criticized Michel for allowing von der Leyen to be humiliated.

The incident quickly became a hot topic well beyond Brussels circles. In Italy, angry callers to radio talk shows Thursday morning expressed indignation both at Erdogan’s choice of only two chairs as well as at Michel’s decision to go along with the arrangement.

One listener calling in to an Italian state radio program said she was disappointed that von der Leyen didn’t walk out, but said she could understand why she didn’t. The caller argued that women are conditioned to unfair treatment from men in the workplace and at home.

EU commission chief spokesman Eric Mamer said on Wenesday that von der Leyen was “surprised" by the arrangements but “decided to proceed nevertheless, prioritizing substance over protocol."

The incident came only weeks after Erdogan pulled Turkey out of a key European convention aimed at combatting violence against women. The move was a blow to Turkey’s women’s rights movement, which says domestic violence and murders of women are on the rise. During her visit to Ankara, von der Leyen called for Erdogan to reverse his decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention — named after the Turkish city where it was signed in 2011.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey had come under “extremely unfair” criticism over the visit and alleged slight shown to von der Leyen.

“Turkey is a deep-rooted state and this is not the first time that it has hosted a visitor,” Cavusoglu said. “The protocol applied during its (international) meetings is in line with international protocol rules as well as the world-renowned Turkish hospitality traditions.”

Cavusoglu insisted that Turkish and EU officials in charge of protocol had held meetings prior to the visit and that the arrangement was in line with EU requests.

“The protocol that was applied during the narrow-scope meeting that was held at our president’s office met the requests of the EU side. In other words, such a seating arrangement was made in line with the suggestions of the EU side. Period,” he said.

The Turkish minister added that he felt obliged to lay the blame on the EU publicly following accusations against Turkey from even “the highest levels of the EU.”

Facing a barrage of questions related to the incident for the second straight day, Mamer did not comment Thursday on the Turkish authorities' version of the incident, and tried to play it down.

“If you look at the president's statements, what she put on her Twitter account, etc.., you will see that there is no mention of this event," Mamer said. “Let's not exaggerate the importance that we gave to this event. We will make sure things are clarified so future missions go ahead according to a common perception of protocol measures."

Michel took a long time to react, saying on Wednesday evening that the embarrassment was the result of the “strict interpretation” by Turkish services of protocol rules.

He regretted “the differentiated, even diminished, treatment of the president of the European Commission” and said photographs of the meeting gave the impression that he was “indifferent” to the situation. “Nothing could be further from the truth, or from my deeply held feelings – or indeed from the principles of respect which I hold so dear," he said.

“At the time, while realizing the regrettable nature of the situation, we decided not to make matters worse by creating a scene,” he said.

Mamer said the commission welcomed Michel's statement.

“It is very important that the European Union shows unity when it is dealing with third countries and partners," he said.


Petrequin reported from Brussels. Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed to this story.