An affront inflicted on the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, placed on a couch on Tuesday by the protocol during the meeting of the presidents of the EU institutions with the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Ankara, caused a controversy and a lot of resentment in Brussels.
“President von der Leyen was surprised. She decided to go ahead and prioritize the substance. But that does not imply that she does not attach importance to the incident, ”her spokesperson, Eric Mamer, explained on Wednesday.
The scene was filmed and widely shared on social media. Under the hashtag #Sofagate, it prompted many comments on the unequal treatment between the two heads of the European institutions and on its sexist character.
“Ehm”, murmurs the former German Minister of Defense, apparently distraught: standing, she does not seem to know where to settle as the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the Turkish President sit in the two prepared armchairs for the meeting.
Ursula von der Leyen then sits on a sofa, behind the two men, facing the Turkish Foreign Minister.
« Mme von der Leyen is waiting to be treated according to the rules of protocol and she has asked her services to ensure that this kind of incident does not repeat itself in the future, her spokesperson said. The presidents of the two institutions have the same protocol rank. “
On the contrary, the European Council, the body representing the Member States, has indicated that its President takes precedence over the Commission for International Protocol.
“No arrangements were made other than those requested by an EU delegation which prepared for the visit,” a Turkish official told AFP at the end of the day. The visit had been prepared by the EU Ambassador in Ankara.
Charles Michel confirmed this version: “The strict interpretation by the Turkish services of the rules of protocol has produced a distressing situation: the differentiated treatment, even reduced, of the President of the European Commission”, he explained in a message. on his Facebook account.
“At the time, while perceiving the regrettable nature of the situation, we chose not to aggravate it by a public incident”, he maintained.
In Paris, the French Secretary of State for European Affairs, Clément Beaune, for his part reacted vigorously. “These are images that hurt and clearly show something organized,” he told BFM TV.
“I do not want a naive, fragile Europe and therefore there, I believe that we are dealing with interlocutors, the Turkish president, who know the strength of images, the value of symbols, he added. . It is an affront that will be corrected, but we must not let this kind of thing happen. “
“Abominable” for the image
The rebuff comes at a delicate diplomatic moment, as the EU and Turkey seek to renew relations after a year of tensions.
Europeans do not hide their concerns about fundamental rights violations in Turkey and President Erdogan’s decision to leave the Istanbul Convention on the prevention of violence against women and children.
At the end of the meeting, Mr.me von der Leyen did not mince his words during the press conference. “I am deeply concerned that Turkey has withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention,” she said.
“The issue of human rights is a high priority in the relationship between the EU and Turkey. It will be taken into account in the general analysis which will be submitted to European leaders at their summit in June, ”his spokesperson warned on Wednesday.
The affront to the first woman to occupy one of the two most senior positions in the EU has aroused the anger of several elected Europeans in Brussels.
“First they are withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention and now they are leaving the President of the European Commission without a seat on an official visit. It is shameful. #WomensRights ”, protested the president of the Socialist group in the European Parliament, the Spaniard Iratxe García Perez, on Twitter.
Charles Michel was not spared. Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld wondered why the President of the Council had remained “silent”.
He defended himself to have been “insensitive” to this situation: “Nothing is further away neither from reality nor from my deep feelings”, he assured.
But the damage is done. “In terms of images, the result is abominable for Charles Michel”, admitted a European official.