Monday

27th Sep 2021

Von der Leyen: 'I felt alone as a woman'

  • Tension between EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen (l) and European council president Charles Michel was palpable over 'Sofagate' (Photo: European Parliament)

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Monday (26 April) blamed sexism for events earlier this month in Ankara, where she was relegated to a sofa during a meeting with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the presence of European Council president Charles Michel.

In unusually personal and passionate comments in the European Parliament, von der Leyen said "it happened because I am a woman".

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In her most detailed account of the incident that became known as "Sofagate", she said she expected to be treated as the president of the European Commission. But she was not.

"I cannot find any justification for how I was treated in the EU treaties, so I have to conclude that it happened because I am a woman. Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie?," she said.

Video footage, which later went viral, of the Ankara visit showed von der Leyen taken aback when the two men - Michel and Erdoğan - sat on the only two chairs which had been prepared.

"Many of you might have had similar experiences in the past," von der Leyen told MEPs.

"Especially the women members of this house, I am sure you know exactly how I felt. I felt hurt, I felt alone as a woman, and as a European," von der Leyen said.

"Because it is not about seating arrangements or protocol. This goes to the core of who we are. This goes to the values our union stands for. It shows how far we still have to go before women are treated as equals always and everyone," she added, saying she was lucky that the incident had been recorded, and privileged that she could speak out about it publicly.

Von der Leyen vowed to push for better protection for women in Europe and called it "not acceptable" that some EU member states were thinking about quitting the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty on violence against women.

In Ankara, the top EU officials also expressed their "deep concern" that Turkey withdrew from the convention.

While von der Leyen did not directly blame Michel for the sofa incident, her comments echoed the tough criticism Michel has received for not acting in the moment and acquiescing in the seating arrangement.

In his own EU Parliament speech, Michel repeated earlier apologies for what he called a "protocol incident", saying that "without the hindsight we all have today", he decided not to react so as not to create a political incident in Turkey, which would have risked ruining months of preparations for the meeting.

He pledged his "total, full, and absolute" support for women and gender equality, and said he would push member states to make progress on gender equality issues, such as pay transparency and having more women on company boards.

Michel also said he would look at a proposal to set up council meetings on gender equality.

'Lonely moments'

Von der Leyen's speech resonated with several women MEPs.

Spanish deputy Iratxe García, leader of the Socialists and Democrats group, said that in Ankara "something was laid bare, that is far too often ignored"

"Mr. Michel, I know that was not your intention, and you did not notice, you did not realise the consequences of this protocol error. But that's precisely the problem, you don't notice, that what's need to change in our societies," she added.

Belgian MEP Assita Kanko thanked von der Leyen for her speech, because "she dares to open her heart here in this room, and as a woman in politics I know it is not easy, but we need to speak up".

"Many women can recognise what president von der Leyen has felt because it has also been some of our lonely moments in our carrier," she said.

Kanko also said the EU needs to change its behaviour towards Turkey, and be more assertive, otherwise, Ankara will not respect the EU.

She said that with the incident EU played into the hands of "Erdogan's agenda of division and misogyny, of destruction tactics and thinly veiled aggression".

"If you give a bully an inch, they will take a mile," she said.

Analysis

Von der Leyen's moment to step up her game

"It is the opportunity she has to seize now to set the course for the remainder of her mandate," said Georg Riekeles from the European Policy Centre.

Turkey formally exits treaty against gender violence

EU states Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia have not ratified the Istanbul Convention on women's rights, while Poland is on course to follow Turkey out of the accord.

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