Was it a deliberate snub or a simple – if spectacular – failure of protocol? Either way, reactions to the awkward scene at the presidential palace in Ankara this week, where European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen was left without a chair for a meeting with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said more about the EU's strained relations with Turkey than any formal statements.
Von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel are of equal rank in the EU hierarchy. But at their joint meeting with Erdogan, von der Leyen was visibly taken aback at being relegated to a couch while Michel took his gilded seat alongside the Turkish leader.
Ankara insists it was a straightforward error, but many others, knowing Erdogan’s obsession with status and macho one-upmanship and the quasi-monarchical trappings with which he surrounds himself, struggle to believe that. Erdogan, whose circle is male-dominated, was aware that at the meeting he would be scolded over Turkey’s withdrawal from a landmark treaty on violence against women.
The fallout neatly captured the EU’s larger divisions on Turkey, which have stymied efforts to present a united front in dealing with the increasingly authoritarian Erdogan. While von der Leyen had no doubt she was deliberately slighted, Michel let Erdogan off the hook by blaming the incident on a “strict interpretation” of protocol rules. Michel said he carried on the meeting to avoid causing a scene. To critics, that merely showed how Erdogan intimidates the EU.
There in a nutshell was the EU’s problem writ small: it is internally divided between those, on one hand, who have little tolerance for Erdogan and seek to hold him accountable for his country’s anti-democratic drift and, on the other, those who feel he should be kept close because of his country’s strategic and political importance on issues such as migration, energy and Middle East security. Those divisions benefit nobody more than Erdogan himself.