After the deeply offensive breach of protocol during a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, where European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was first left standing even as Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, who is the same rank as von der Leyen, took a seat, there is outrage and calls for a deeper investigation into what transpired.

The matter was also particularly disturbing because von der Leyen was then made to sit on a sofa in the same position as Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who is ranked lower than her as per diplomatic protocol.

Turkey has expectedly washed its hands off the matter by squarely blaming the EU team. In a statement issued, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, “The protocol at the presidency met the demands of the EU side. In other words, the seating arrangement was designed to meet their demands and suggestions.”

While Turkey’s poor track record with respect to women’s rights is well known and is in fact getting worse in wake of their withdrawal from an important international treaty against domestic violence, what left many people rather flummoxed was how Michel responded to the clear disrespect with which his colleague and equal von der Leyen was treated, purportedly, because of her gender.

Michel has tried to defend himself for failing to take a stand more than once. First he told a German newspaper Handelsblatt, “My fear was that if I had reacted in any way, I would have triggered a much more serious incident,” adding , “I make no secret of the fact that I haven’t slept well at night since then.”

But this begs the question, how would defending one’s colleague’s right to be treated with respect, lead to a “serious incident”?

But Michel did not stop there. He made a post on Facebook saying, “Our visit marked an important moment in the complex process of improving relations between the European Union and Turkey. It was the culmination of meticulous preparation and diplomatic effort conducted over many months with the aim of encouraging that country to adopt a more constructive approach in its relationship with the EU.”

He then attempted to explain his own non-action by saying, “At the time, while realising the regrettable nature of the situation, we decided not to make matters worse by creating a scene. At the beginning of the meeting, we resolved instead to focus on the substance of the political discussions, which Ursula and I were to embark upon with our hosts.”

He said, “Those discussions were centred in particular on the conversation we had with President Erdoğan regarding the Istanbul Convention, women’s and children’s rights and, more broadly, the safeguarding of our fundamental values: rule of law, freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”

The use of the plural personal pronoun suggests that it was a joint decision by Michel and von der Leyen, but what does sound rather odd is how he refers to his colleague by her first name instead of her last name as is usually the case in formal communication. Notice how he does not call Erdogan Recep, and instead calls him by his last name preceded by his designation.

What is also deeply disturbing is the use of the term “creating a scene”. How is expressing solidarity with one’s female colleague and demanding equal respect for women come to be dubbed as “creating a scene”?

Meanwhile, many people including past and present Members of the European Parliament (MEP), especially women have expressed their outrage over the incident on Twitter.

Now, the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest group in the European Parliament, has decided to call for a debate in the presence of both von der Leyen and Michel to understand what exactly transpired.

Meanwhile, Iratxe García Pérez, the chair of the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group, has called the incident “shameful” and said that S&D will also request that a plenary debate on the subject to be included in the agenda of the Parliament’s next part-session, that is scheduled to take place in the week beginning Monday, April 26.

*Feature image courtesy European Parliament via Wikimedia Commons.