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Two presidents visited Turkey. Only the man was offered a chair

EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen.
EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen.ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

BRUSSELS — If diplomacy is part theater, acted out on meticulously crafted sets, then a protocol blunder this week turned a top-level visit by European Union leaders to Turkey into high drama.

Whether by design or by oversight, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive arm, was left awkwardly standing as her colleague Charles Michel, the president of the council representing the bloc’s 27 members, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey took the only two available seats between the EU and Turkish flags.

“Uhm …” von der Leyen was heard saying in a video as she stood, lingering, in the grand room in the Turkish presidential palace Tuesday while Michel and Erdogan settled in their gilded seats, perfectly centered for a photo op.

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Still standing, she raised a questioning hand.

She ended up propped up by cushions on a side sofa several feet away, and lower than the two men. Adding further insult to the faux pas, her position was mirrored on the other side of the room by Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, whom she outranks. Von der Leyen, who is president of the European Commission, and Michel, who heads the European Council, are of equal rank in the EU hierarchy.

“There’s a reason why protocol arrangements exist: to try to take the element of atmospherics and drama out of the equation,” said Ian Lesser, the director of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels. “These things are not supposed to happen.”

Twitter users in Europe swiftly reacted with the hashtag #GiveHerASeat.” Many saw the moment as symbolic of the cultural differences between Erdogan’s Turkey and the European Union, coming just days after the Turkish leader withdrew his country from the Istanbul Convention, a treaty that seeks to protect women from gender-driven violence.

But if the incident was symbolic of Turkey’s poor record on women’s rights, it also reflected the European Union’s inability to forge a united front in dealing with a country that is a hugely important neighbor and a candidate to become a member of the bloc.

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Not only did Michel decline to turn the situation around by offering von der Leyen his seat — a decision that one EU official defended, arguing that doing so would have created more awkwardness. But in a post-mortem in Brussels of the incident, the institutions Wednesday offered diverging views of what had happened and why.

Von der Leyen “should have been seated exactly in the same manner as the president of the European Council and the Turkish president,” said her spokesman, Eric Mamer. He added that von der Leyen, the first woman to hold that post, “expects the institution that she represents to be treated with the required protocol, and she has therefore asked her team to take all appropriate contacts in order to ensure that such an incident does not occur in the future.”

But another EU official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, offered a different take, saying that Turkey had meant no disrespect and had strictly adhered to international protocol.

Others wondered: Had it been a protocol mishap or an intended slight, given Erdogan’s penchant for drama? Both are possible under his increasingly autocratic rule, Turkish analysts said, though they were inclined to see it as an oversight.

“Both sides are to share the blame,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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Turkey’s foreign ministry should have warned the presidency that the two EU leaders act as co-chairs, she said, and EU officials should have corrected the mistake.

“The omission is a natural outcome of Erdogan living in an all-male political environment and the EU being intimidated by the Turkish president,” she added.

The protocol fail in Tuesday’s meeting comes at a crucial time in Turkey’s relations with the European Union.

In recent months, Turkey has emphasized a desire to improve relations with the bloc and to revive its process for joining. The meeting was intended to build momentum in a relationship that has been fraught with disagreements in recent years on issues like migration, maritime borders and customs arrangements.

“Whatever the realities on the protocol side, the incident clearly underscores the fact that Turkey was blind to the optics of how this would appear,” said Lesser of the German Marshall Fund. Those optics, he added, “will only underscore the sense that Europe is not on the same page when it comes to values, when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and gender equality.”

That point was not lost on the offended party.

Von der Leyen “seized the opportunity to insist on the issues related to women’s rights in general and to the Istanbul Convention in particular,” Mamer, her spokesman, said. “It would have been discussed certainly in any case, but obviously this sharpened her focus on the issue.”

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