One of the issues on the agenda for discussion at the meeting in Ankara on Tuesday was Turkey’s withdrawal from a landmark treaty on violence against women.
The awkward scene was revealed in video footage of the meeting with Mr Erdogan and the European Council president Charles Michel, which showed the men taking prominent seats at the head of the room while Dr von der Leyen was left standing.
Clearly caught off guard, Dr von der Leyen could be heard saying “ehm...” and gesturing towards the seats, before taking her place on a sofa off to the side of the scene.
A European Commission spokesman said that Dr von der Leyen was “clearly surprised” not to be given a chair, and that her rank was equal to Mr Michel’s in matters of protocol.
“Our president is a member of the European Council in her own right, and normally when she goes to foreign countries she was treated in exactly the same way as the president of the European Council,” the spokesman said.
“The president 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.”
The incident was widely seen as a diplomatic snub, and echoes a botched visit of the commission’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, to Moscow in February that was described by MEPs as a deliberate humiliation by Russia.
The EU and Turkish leaders were due to discuss issues including funding in exchange for stopping people migrating to the EU and trade, covering areas over which Dr von der Leyen has more power than Mr Michel.
The chair incident was not mentioned at a press conference following the meeting, but Dr von der Leyen did express concerns over Turkey’s withdrawal from the gender-based violence treaty.
“I am deeply worried about the fact that Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention,” she said. “This is about protecting women and protecting children against violence. And this is clearly the wrong signal right now.”
The incident received widespread criticism. Former EU commissioner Violeta Bulc called it a “diplomatic fiasco”, while the leader of the centre-left block in the European Parliament Iratxe Garcia Perez, called it “shameful”.
“First they withdraw from the Istanbul Convention and now they leave the president of European Commission without a seat in an official visit,” she tweeted.