On 06.04.2021, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council President Charles Michel visited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to develop relations between Turkey and the EU further.

Ms von der Leyen was “banished” to an out-of-the-way sofa at the reception in the splendid hall because there was only one guest chair beside the President’s chair. She commented on the circumstance with a clearly audible “Ähem”. Naturally, this caused a great deal of speculation internationally, as well as jokes.

We are interested in the negotiation aspect of the situation. What exactly happened, and how could such a situation have been avoided?

The protocol
Former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Council President, is “number 1″ from a protocol perspective. The EU Commission believes that their President has ” the same protocol rank”. Wolfgang Schultheiss, a long-time diplomat at the German Foreign Office, describes the “hard truth”: “From a formal point of view, the President of the EU Council has a higher rank than the President of the Commission, Ms von der Leyen, albeit slightly.”

The accusation of misogyny

According to Mr Schultheiss, the protocol does not recognise gender. It is “gender-blind” and “only knows ranks and, in the case of equal rank, Seniority”.

In the run-up
The EU advance delegation did not have access to the ceremonial hall in advance. Instead, there was a brief tour of the premises. However, according to a statement by the EU Council, the meeting room was not accessible “despite our requests” because it was “considered too close to President Erdoğan’s office”.

Otherwise, the EU side would have suggested that von der Leyen be given a gold-decorated chair “out of courtesy” as the Council President, Charles Michel. But, on the other hand, in the dining room, the requests of the EU representatives had been met: There, “the three chairs for the VIPs had been adjusted in size in favour of the Commission President”.

However, it is possible that the advance delegation felt safe. In 2015, the visit of former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker with the then Council President Donald Tusk went off without a hitch: The two sat to the right-left of Erdoğan during their visit. Source: Johanna Christner: “Die EU zerfleischt sich selbst”, in FAZ from 12.04.2021

 
All of this suggests that the unpleasant situation in the formal room resulted from faulty preparation by the EU advance delegation, perhaps based on assumptions.

The following therefore applies to negotiation situations: In addition to preparation in terms of content, permanently attach importance to the negotiation setting and the organisational framework – even if this can be taken for granted:

Information about negotiating partners

Gather all the information you can about the negotiating partners. It is essential to know the names of the negotiating partners and to be able to pronounce them correctly.
Please find out about the position of each negotiating partner and their authority.

Depending on the cultural background of Your negotiation partner, it is also essential to know the respective titles that the negotiating partner uses or is allowed to use.
In complex negotiations, it does not hurt to know something about the personal background of the negotiating partner, his family circumstances, any taboo subjects, positive or negative previous experience with your company or with that of the negotiating partner.

Organisational framework

Ensure that the organisational framework is clear before negotiating the seating arrangement, name badges, conference service, dress code, etc.
If several people are participating in the negotiation, make sure that it is clarified who will facilitate the negotiation process. Any accommodation should be defined by date, place, time, duration, invitation deadline, arrival/departure. Make sure that the key decision-makers are present at the negotiation.

Internal arrangements

If you are part of a negotiating team, it is essential to ensure how you will organise yourself in the negotiation. Key issues to clarify in the process:

  • Who has which task in the negotiation?
    For example, is each negotiation team member responsible for a particular area and negotiates themselves, or one person negotiates and the other people are called in when there are specific issues?
  • Who makes decisions when it is necessary on an ad hoc basis?
    Who has the last word when it comes to concessions? How far does the authority of the negotiating team go? Who intervenes when things escalate?  

Keeping these points in mind when preparing for your negotiation will ensure that a debate about seating arrangements or other organisational shortcomings does not overshadow your negotiation’s actual goal.


Klaus Fischer has compiled this case study for you.