A protocol blunder during a meeting on Tuesday between Von der Leyen, European Council chief Charles Michel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan caused a public uproar.
During the talk about Turkey-EU relations, the three were led to a large room for discussions to find there was only two chairs set out for the three leaders.
Michel and Erdogan took their seats while Von der Leyen looked astonished and disappointed. She was later seen seated on a beige sofa, away from her make counterparts, leading to accusations of gender discrimination.
Turkey insisted that the EU’s own protocol requests were applied, but EU officials refrained to comment on this assertion revealing a lack of unity among them.
Evelyn Regner, the chair of the European Parliament’s woman’s rights committee wrote: “A woman’s place is not on a by-standing sofa! A woman’s place is [at] the decision-making table!”
EU commission chief spokesman Eric Mamer said on Wednesday that Von der Leyen was “surprised” by the arrangements but “decided to proceed nevertheless, prioritising substance over protocol”.
Michel did not immediately comment on the incident, but said Wednesday night that 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.
He said the blunder was a “strict interpretation” of protocol rules.
On Thursday, Turkish Foriegn Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called the criticism it had received over the event “unfair” and said the “protocol applied during its [international] meetings is in line with international protocol rules as well as the world-renowned Turkish hospitality traditions”.
He said: “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.”
The incident came only weeks after Turkey pulled out of a landmark European treaty aimed at protecting women from violence, despite rising cases of domestic and femicide.
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.
Turkey does not keep official statistics on femicide, but the We Will Stop Femicide Platform says 77 women have been killed since the start of 2021 and at least 409 were killed in 2020, and statistics from the World Health Organisation show 38 per cent of women in Turkey are subject to violence from a partner in their lifetime, compared with about 25 per cent in Europe.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press