Tuesday

11th May 2021

Commission demands equal treatment of EU presidents

  • Ursula von der Leyen was left on the sofa at Tuesday's meeting in Ankara (Photo: European Union, 2021)

The European Commission says Turkey's treatment of its president has "sharpened her focus" on women's rights.

The comments on Wednesday (7 April) come on the 10th anniversary of the Istanbul Convention, which seeks to promote rights and curtail domestic violence.

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  • All-male cast of former EU presidents sitting next to Turkey's president (Photo: European Union)

But they also come after the symbolic diplomatic shaming earlier this week of commission president Ursula von der Leyen while in Turkey.

Von der Leyen was in Ankara with EU council president Charles Michel.

The two were introduced to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at an arranged meeting on Tuesday.

One free chair next to Erdoğan was immediately seized by Michel, leaving a visibly annoyed von der Leyen sitting on the sofa.

The incident provoked an immediate backlash from the European Commission's chief spokesperson, Eric Mamer.

"It is absolutely obvious that during a joint visit to a foreign country, where both presidents take part, they should be treated in the same way," he said - also noting that the commission's protocol department was absent due to Covid restrictions.

The EU treaty lists the EU institutions by order, placing the European Commission under the European Council.

But Mamer said that the presidents of the two EU institutions still have the same protocol rank.

Other past joint visits, by then all-male presidents of the EU institutions, show them seated side-by-side with Erdoğan.

Mamer also pointed out that the European Commission was given a policy lead in its visit to Turkey, highlighting a statement made by national leaders of EU member states in late March.

It is unclear if the incident was a deliberate attempt by Turkey to embarrass the EU, a rivalry between the two EU institutions, sexism, or a combination.

Iratxe García Pérez, the president of the socialist S&D, called it "shameful".

Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld said it was "deliberate", while also noting Michel's silence.

Michel had also tweeted a video of the incident, showing an annoyed von der Leyen.

And when asked to clarify protocol, his spokesperson did not respond.

Late Wednesday evening Michel in a Facebook post said the seating was not his fault, and did not apologise for his actions.

He said the images of the meeting had given a false impression.

"The few images that were shown gave the impression that I would have been insensitive to this situation. Nothing is further neither from reality, nor from my deep feelings," Michel wrote.

He added that the "strict interpretation by the Turkish services of protocol rules" had "produced a distressing situation".

Michel said he and von der Leyen had chosen not to worsen the situation by a public incident and to focus on the substance of the discussion instead.

However, the meeting had been organised by Turkey, as part of a wider bid to renew strained relations with the EU and its member states.

But Erdogan had also recently announced the withdrawal of Turkey from the Istanbul Convention.

It means Turkey will officially exit the convention as of 1 July. Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia have also not ratified it.

Embarrassment

It is not the first time the EU has been embarrassed by another country.

EU policy chief Josep Borrell was humiliated by the Russians during a trip to Moscow in February.

The latest episode comes as the EU seeks to drum up support for its views around the region.

In Turkey, that meant discussing issues ranging from economic cooperation, migration and "people-to-people contacts and mobility."

"We've come to Turkey to give our relationship a new momentum," said von der Leyen.

She has since instructed her staff to make sure similar incidents over seating arrangements do not take place again.

Turkey snubs Greece on migrant returnees

The Greek government last week requested that the European Commission and EU border agency Frontex help return 1,450 failed asylum seekers to Turkey. Turkey has refused, citing the pandemic.

Analysis

There is no 'Russia-Turkey alliance'

Talk of a grand Turkey-Russia realignment is premature, Nato and Russia experts say - despite Putin and Erdoğan's friendly ties.

Von der Leyen's summer plans undisclosed, after Ukraine snub

Ukraine's president invited EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to independence celebrations end of August. Citing a busy schedule, her subordinate said 'no' in an unsent letter. Asked what is on her agenda, the commission can't say.

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