EU Commission head says ‘hurt’ by treatment as a woman during Turkey visit

“I cannot find any justification for how I was treated … so I have to conclude that it happened because I am a woman,” von der Leyen said. “Would this have happened if I had worn a suit, and a tie?”
Tuesday 27/04/2021
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen waits for the start of a debate on Turkey at the European Parliament in Brussels, Monday, April 26, 2021. (AP)
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen waits for the start of a debate on Turkey at the European Parliament in Brussels, Monday, April 26, 2021. (AP)

BRUSSELS--The European Union’s first female chief executive vowed on Monday to fight for women’s rights after she was denied a chair during a meeting in Ankara with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan two weeks ago.

Speaking to the European Parliament, a visibly angry Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the April 6 episode – where she was relegated to an adjacent sofa while Erdogan and European Council President Charles Michel sat in prepared chairs, showed disdain for female politicians.

“I cannot find any justification for how I was treated … so I have to conclude that it happened because I am a woman,” von der Leyen said, questioning whether the same would have happened had she been a man.

Video footage on April 6 during the Ankara visit showed von der Leyen clearly taken aback when the two men took the only two chairs prepared, relegating her to an adjacent sofa.

“I felt hurt, and I felt alone as a woman and as a European,” von der Leyen told EU lawmakers, in a swipe at Michel who was heavily criticised by many EU politicians for not intervening on her behalf in Ankara.

“I am the president of the European Commission, and this is how I expected to be treated when visiting Turkey (…) but I was not,” von der Leyen said. “This shows how far we still have to go before women are treated as equals – always and everywhere.”

Speaking  himself to the parliament, Michel again expressed his regret over the situation, which he said he understood offended many women. He also told lawmakers that deeper economic ties with Turkey were difficult because of a deterioration of basic rights and freedoms in Turkey, including those of women.

Von der Leyen said that fortunately cameras were present at the meeting and that the images made headlines around the world, but she said that many women are not so lucky, noting the increase in violence against women and children during the coronavirus pandemic.

The head of the EU’s executive branch, whose speech was praised by several lawmakers, also said that during the talks with Erdogan she raised Turkey’s decision to abandon the Istanbul Convention, which is aimed at combating violence against women.

“The withdrawal of one of the founding members of the Council of Europe is a terrible signal,” von der Leyen said, but she also noted that several EU member countries haven’t ratified the convention and that others are even considering pulling out.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) receiving EU Council President Charles Michel (C) and President of EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen (L) at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, April 6, 2021. AFP

“This is not acceptable. Any kind of violence against women and children is a crime. We must call it a crime and it must be punished as such,” she said.

Von der Leyen said she wants the EU itself to join the convention, but that the move is being blocked by some member countries.   She said that by the end of the year the European Commission “will put forward alternative legislation to prevent and combat violence against women and children, offline and online.”

The apparent protocol gaffe at the Turkish presidential palace ignited a public uproar. Turkey insisted that the EU’s own protocol requests were applied but the European Council head of protocol said his team didn’t have access, during their preparatory inspection, to the room where the incident happened.

While it would not be uncharacteristic of Erdogan to have deliberately arranged  Von der Leyen’s “sofagate” humiliation, he has some sort of a defence thanks to the EU’s complicated protocol which the French newspaper Libération has characterised as “bizarre”.

The EU actually has four different presidents. Under a 2011 “interinstitutional” agreement, the president of the European parliament comes first in order of precedence, followed by the president of the European Council and then the president (rotating) of the Council of Ministers and finally the president of the European Commission.

The effect of this pecking order is that when the presidents of the European Council and the Commission are on a joint overseas mission, the head of the European Council, in this case Michel, is also the head of the delegation and would therefore expect to sit beside the foreign leader while, as Commission boss, von der Leyen would be seated elsewhere.

Throughout the general EU outrage at Von der Leyen’s reception in Ankara, no reference has been made to the 2011 “interinstitutional” agreement. Moreover, she herself has said “I cannot find any justification for (how) I was treated in the European treaties. So, I have to conclude that it happened because I am a woman,” she said. “Would this have happened if I had worn a suit, and a tie?”