Von der Leyen relegated to sofa in Turkey meeting as MEPs decry diplomatic snub

The game of musical chairs between Ursula von der Leyen, Charles Michel and Turkish President Recep Erdoğan has sparked widespread criticism – not only of Erdoğan but also of Michel.
European Commission Audiovisual

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

07 Apr 2021

Just weeks after withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women, Turkey has once again come under fire for its treatment of women, this time concerning European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

In a meeting between von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and Turkish President Recep Erdoğan on Tuesday, during a trip to Turkey by the two EU leaders, there were only two main chairs provided for the leaders, with the noticeable exception of a third chair.

As Michel and Erdoğan took their places in the centre of the room, a video shows a visibly confused von der Leyen left standing saying “ehm…?”

A photo later shows von der Leyen sitting on a sofa some distance away from Michel and Erdoğan, with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu sitting on a sofa opposite her.

The apparent snub to the Commission’s first-ever female President has triggered a wave of condemnation on social media, with many policymakers dubbing it #SofaGate, and reaction was scathing on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, as MEPs viewed the jaw-dropping footage.

The EPP Group, Parliament’s largest political group, of which von der Leyen is a member, said that “someone should be ashamed because of the lack of the proper seat for von der Leyen in Erdoğan's palace,” adding, “The EU signaled openness for a dialogue, but we stand firm by our values. Women deserve the same recognition as their male colleagues.”

S&D leader Iratxe García Pérez said, “First they withdraw from the Istanbul Convention and now they leave the President of the European Commission without a seat in an official visit. Shameful.”

“We lack women in politics, but we also can't assume that they are free from discrimination when they reach positions of power. This is another shameful example of this” Maria Manuel Leitão Marques, S&D

German Greens/EFA member Sergey Lagodinsky, chair of the Delegation to the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, was one of the first MEPs to point out the snub to von der Leyen, tweeting, “’Ehm’ is the new term for ‘that’s not how EU-Turkey relationship should be”, adding the hashtags #GiveHerASeat #EU #Turkey #womensrights.

Dutch Renew Europe deputy Sophie in ‘t Veld replied, showing photos of previous meetings between Erdoğan and former Council and Commission presidents Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker - notably male EU leaders - where all three were seated together.

She added, “And no, it wasn’t a coincidence, it was deliberate. Why was Charles Michel silent?”

Indeed, Michel’s failure to make a statement by offering von der Leyen his chair has made him the subject of withering criticism across the political divide.

French S&D member Raphaël Glucksmann, vice-chair of Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, asked how Michel could accept “this treatment inflicted on von der Leyen.”

“The symbolic violence of this situation imposed by Erdoğan is crazy. By going ahead and sitting down anyway, Charles Michel takes a seat on gender equality.”

Idoia Villanueva, Spanish GUE/NGL deputy, said, “It is intolerable that the EU and Charles Michel allow Erdoğan, who has just removed his country from the Istanbul Convention against sexist violence, to discriminate in this way against President von der Leyen.”

Luxembourg MEP Marc Angel, co-president of Parliament's LGBTI Intergroup, commented, “what a macho world!” adding, “Michel had two options to reply with a strong message to Erdoğan and to underline how important equality really is for the EU: a) get up and offer the seat to von der Leyen or b) sit next to von der Leyen on the couch.”

“The symbolic violence of this situation imposed by Erdoğan is crazy. By going ahead and sitting down anyway, Charles Michel takes a seat on gender equality” Raphaël Glucksmann, S&D

Belgian Renew Europe MEP Hilde Vautmans said that after watching the “SofaGate” footage, she had her doubts that Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention would be reversed any time soon.

She said, “Erdoğan rubbed in well how he thinks about women’s rights,” adding, “The EU should draw lessons from this humiliating incident too. How could this have happened? Is this how a geopolitical Europe promotes women’s rights?”

Fellow Belgian, Greens/EFA deputy Saskia Bricmont, echoed these sentiments, saying, “After Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention we expect EU representatives to stand up for women’s rights. What kind of exchange can you have after such a shameful episode?”

Lithuanian EPP member Aušra Maldeikienė commented simply, “If the President of Turkey came to my house I would find him a chair, even though he is a man.”

ECR MEP Assita Kanko expressed her indignation at the incident, saying, “As a woman, mother of a girl, politician and European, I am very shocked to see these images of EU leaders in Turkey. As President of the Commission, von der Leyen was not offered a chair. This really breaks my heart and goes against everything I stand for.”

She went on, “Why did Michel sit down? Why couldn't he go to his place, turn around, look at von der Leyen and show some solidarity? It was not just von der Leyen, but the EU that was humiliated here.”

Loucas Fourlas, a Cypriot EPP deputy, labelled Erdoğan’s behavior with regards to von der Leyen “totally shameful and unacceptable”, adding, “It demonstrates how Turkey perceives its relations with the EU. How long will we actually tolerate this?”

Evelyn Regner, chair of Parliament's Women's Right's and Gender Equality Committee (FEMM), said, “A woman’s place is not on a by-standing sofa! A woman’s place is at the decision-making table!”

Spanish Greens/EFA member Ernest Urtasun, a member of the FEMM Committee, called von der Leyen's treatment by the Turkish authorities “intolerable and sexist.”

“They never dared to do something like that with Juncker. Sad role played by Charles Michel, who shouldn't have allowed this.”

“The EU should draw lessons from this humiliating incident. How could this have happened? Is this how a geopolitical Europe promotes women’s rights?” Hilde Vautmans, Renew Europe

German S&D member Birgit Sippel, however, was unsurprised by the incident, adding, “Did anyone expect anything else from this autocrat?”

She noted that “the real scandal is that von der Leyen and Charles Michel make offers [to Turkey] without any conditions on human rights, releasing journalists and lawyers, or complying with the Istanbul Convention.”

The diplomatic faux pas aside, the trip to Turkey is reported to have been successful, according to both von der Leyen and Michel.

Von der Leyen said on Twitter, “Good first meeting with President Erdoğan. Turkey has shown interest in re-engaging with the EU in a constructive way. We are ready to work on a new momentum in our relationship ahead of the June European Council.”

She added, “Today Council President Michel and I clearly underlined in the talks that respect for fundamental rights and the rule of law are crucial for the EU. This must be an integral part of our relationship. We discussed possible enhanced cooperation: stronger economic ties; modernised Customs Union; better cooperation in migration management based on the EU-Turkey statement.”

“But for this Turkey must respect the international human rights rules and standards to which it committed.”

For his part, Michel said, “Rule of law and respect of fundamental rights are EU core values. I shared with Erdoğan our deep worries on latest developments in Turkey. Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention has raised concern in Europe. Dialogue remains an essential part of our EU-Turkey relationship.”

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