Ursula von der Leyen was stunned to find herself regulated to the sofa during discussions with Mr Erdogan and her colleague Charles Michel, the president of the European Council on Tuesday.
The trio had been led in to a large room for discussions with Mr Erdogan. However, TV images showed that only two chairs had been laid out in front of the EU and the Turkish flags for the three leaders.
“Ehm,” the EU leader could be heard to say when Mr Erdogan and Mr Michel took the two available seats at the meeting in the Turkish capital Ankara.
Ms Von der Leyen was forced to make do with second-rank sitting arrangements, facing Turkey’s foreign minister on the presidential complex’s couches.
According to a EU source, the meeting between the three leaders lasted more than two hours and a half.
Condemnation of the apparent snub was swift. “What a diplomatic fiasco,” tweeted Violeta Bulc, a former EU commissioner.
An EU Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said Ms Von der Leyen “was clearly surprised”, adding: “The president should have been seated in exactly the same manner as the president of the European Council and the Turkish president.”
He said that members of staff who usually oversee diplomatic protocol on foreign trips were not travelling with the leaders because of Covid, so did not see seating arrangement beforehand.
Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld was among those asking why Mr Michel did not choose to give up his seat for Ms Von Der Leyen, or demand another chair be brought in for her. “Why was the European Council president silent?”
Iratxe García Pérez, the MEP who leads the Socialist and Democrats group at the European parliament, criticised Turkey over the incident.
“First they withdraw from the Istanbul convention, and now they leave the president of European commission without a seat in an official visit. Shameful,” she tweeted.
Neither Von der Leyen nor Mr Michel made any mention of the event dubbed “chairgate” following their meeting with the Turkish president.
They said they had used a meeting with Mr Erdogan to insist that any moves to enhance EU-Turkey relations would be conditional on Turkey improving its record on human rights and the rule of law.
Ms Von der Leyen also condemned Turkey’s decision leave the 2011 convention on preventing violence against women.
“I am deeply worried by the fact that Turkey withdraws from the Istanbul convention,” the EU Commission chief said. “This is about protecting women and protecting children from the threat of violence”.
Asked whether the commission regarded the incident as specifically gender-related, Mr Mamer said Ms von der Leyen travelled to Ankara as the president of an EU institution.
“Being a man or a woman does not change anything to the fact that she should have been seated according to the very same protocol arrangements as the two other participants,” Mr Mamer said.
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