Oh dear, it was most ungentlemanly of me to laugh. But I couldn’t suppress a chuckle over the video showing Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission, quietly fuming at this week’s summit in Turkey after two caddish males bagged the only available chairs.
Indeed, I suspect I was very far from alone in being instantly reminded of the age-old story of the Etonian, the Wykehamist and the Harrovian, repeated down the years to illustrate the stereotypical differences between alumni of Eton, Winchester and Harrow.
You know the one. A woman walks into a room where the three public schoolboys are standing. The Etonian languidly commands: ‘Fetch that lady a chair!’ The meek Wykehamist scurries off to fetch it . . . and the bounder from Harrow promptly sits on it.
I couldn’t suppress a chuckle over the video showing Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission, quietly fuming at this week’s summit in Turkey after two caddish males bagged the only available chairs
Clearly, the male presidents who treated Mrs von der Leyen so shoddily — Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Charles Michel of the European Council — are two of nature’s Harrovians.
For his part, the egregious Erdogan can hardly claim it was an accident that no chair was put out for von der Leyen. This is because earlier photographs show three chairs laid out for the meeting, before one was removed.
If this was a mistake, the Turkish leader could easily have demanded the chair’s return — particularly after his German guest had made her displeasure felt, with an emphatic ‘ahem!’ and a gesture that said: ‘Where the Gott im Himmel am I supposed to sit?’ But he simply ignored her.
He and his aides would also have been well aware that, according to diplomatic protocol, the presidents of the EU Commission and the European Council hold equal ranking.
This means they should always be given seating of equal prominence — a courtesy accorded to their predecessors on past visits to Turkey, when both happened to be male.
So there’s no getting away from it: Erdogan’s treatment of von der Leyen was a deliberate snub — all the more pointed, since one of the items up for discussion on the summit agenda was his government’s disrespect for women’s rights.
Erdogan’s treatment of von der Leyen was a deliberate snub — all the more pointed, since one of the items up for discussion on the summit agenda was his government’s disrespect for women’s rights. Which brings me to the extraordinary conduct of Mr Michel, pictured, the former Belgian prime minister who took over from Donald Tusk at the European Council at the end of 2019
Which brings me to the extraordinary conduct of Mr Michel, the former Belgian prime minister who took over from Donald Tusk at the European Council at the end of 2019.
Now, I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that any true gentleman in his position would have known at once where his duty lay, the moment he saw only one chair laid out beneath the European flag. As a matter of basic good manners, he would have offered it to the lady.
Out of respect for the dignity of his own office, he would also have been fully justified in insisting that his host found a third chair for him.
Instead, he made a beeline for the single seat beneath the flag and instantly lowered his bottom into it, leaving Mrs von der Leyen standing. In the end, she had to sit on a side sofa, while Mr Michel lorded it from his throne.
What an unspeakable cad! In a more chivalrous age, he would have been horsewhipped — or at the very least exiled from civilised society.
Why is it, then, that when I saw the YouTube video of this disgraceful display, my first instinct was to chuckle?
One reason, I suppose, is that the incident highlights the ludicrous power structure of the EU, with its multitude of presidents — those of the Commission, the Council, the Parliament and the Central Bank — all jealously demanding that their status should be duly honoured.
Add 27 heads of state, each vying with the rest for proper recognition, and is it any wonder that every big project Brussels touches, from the single currency to the Covid vaccination drive, ends up a shambles?
I must also confess to a touch of schadenfreude (a word Mrs von der Leyen will well understand). After all, she has treated Britain’s AstraZeneca so contemptuously, over its munificent gift to the world, that it does the heart good to see her get a dose of her own medicine.
But more than this, I laughed because that sticky scene in the Turkish capital so perfectly illustrates an agonising dilemma we men often experience in this age of feminism.
Indeed, I felt a surge of fellow-feeling for the ungallant Mr Michel when he plonked himself into that chair. There was an uneasy look in his eyes, as he stared at Mrs von der Leyen, that made me think I could read exactly what was going through his head.
If my guess is right, his thought-process went something like this: ‘Mon dieu! There’s only one chair! Of course, chivalry dictates that I should offer it to Madame. But wait a minute…
I must also confess to a touch of schadenfreude (a word Mrs von der Leyen will well understand). After all, she has treated Britain’s AstraZeneca so contemptuously, over its munificent gift to the world, that it does the heart good to see her get a dose of her own medicine
‘Would she feel insulted if I treated her like a lady? Powerful women often do these days. Maybe it would be safer if I treated her exactly as I would if she were a man, and let her deal with it as she chooses . . .’
With that in mind, he sat down.
Big mistake — as his grovelling apology on Wednesday night made so clear after Mrs von der Leyen’s office spelt out her fury. But then isn’t it true that men just can’t win in this age when so many feminists regard any show of gallantry as a ‘micro-aggression’?
Born in the early 1950s, I was brought up always to open doors for women, stand when they enter a room and offer them my seat on the bus or the Tube if they need it.
In some circumstances, I still do it — and I find that most women appreciate it. But in recent years, more than a few have looked daggers at me for showing them courtesies once seen as de rigueur.
How’s a poor bloke to tell if the woman on the Tube, weighed down by shopping bags, will thank him for giving her his seat — or curse him for belittling the sisterhood?
And how’s a poor Belgian bureaucrat to know if a female president of the European Commission will love him or hate him for behaving like a gentleman?
But let me end on a similar dilemma that faced me many years ago, when I had the pleasure of being invited to dinner at his Mayfair house by a rising Tory MP of decidedly old-fashioned manners. Let’s call him Jacob Rees-Mogg, since that is his name.
I don’t know if he’s changed his ways, but in those days it was his habit to ask the ladies to withdraw at the end of the meal, leaving the men to their masculine talk over the port.
Now, it happened that one of my fellow guests on the evening in question was a female colleague, whom I knew to be a passionate feminist.
She was deeply affronted by the suggestion that the ladies should leave the table, presumably to talk about knitting and babies, while the men discussed matters of high state.
Hence my dilemma. Should I stay at the table and be damned for ever in the eyes of my female colleague as an antediluvian male chauvinist pig? Or should I show solidarity with her by joining the ladies — thereby insulting my generous host?
For what it’s worth, in this lose-lose situation I made a reluctant stand for feminism and abandoned my fellow male guests. But I’ve wondered ever since if I did the right thing.
Wasn’t life an awful lot simpler when everyone accepted that the sexes were treated differently, and nobody seemed to mind?