‘It happened because I am a woman’: von der Leyen speaks of Turkey snub

European Commission president blames sexism for second-rank treatment in Ankara

The first female president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has blamed sexism for an incident in which she was left without a chair on a diplomatic visit to Turkey, in a speech in which she described the hurt and isolation she felt.

In an impassioned address to the European Parliament, the commission chief linked the snub – dubbed "sofagate" – to the unequal treatment of women around the world, and declared her intention to see the European Union ratify the Istanbul Convention, a landmark treaty against domestic violence that several governments have turned against.

“I have to conclude, it happened because I am a woman,” she told MEPs.

“Especially the female members of this House, I am sure, know exactly how I felt. I felt hurt and left alone: as a woman and as a European. Because this 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. And this shows how far we still have to go before women are treated as equals. Always, and everywhere.”


‘Status of women’

“The status of women is the status of democracy. Equal rights for women are the foundation for the strength of our democracies,” Dr von der Leyen added. “This just shows us why we need more women in positions of power.”

The speech was made in the presence of European Council president Charles Michel, who has received sharp criticism for failing to react when Dr von der Leyen was left awkwardly standing.

During the visit to Ankara on April 7th, Mr Michel and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan took two prominent seats at the head of the formal reception room, leaving Dr von der Leyen visibly discomfited while the men did not react.

Video footage of the protocol mishap quickly went viral, and was widely seen as a snub to the commission chief as she is equal in rank to Mr Michel, and on past joint visits previous EU leaders had been seated equally.

Istanbul Convention

Mr Michel has said he did not react in the moment because he did not want to create a diplomatic incident, and has defended his record as a supporter of women in politics and a father of two girls. But the incident has caused tensions between the two heads of the EU institutions and raised questions over whether Mr Michel’s mandate will be renewed.

In her speech, Dr von der Leyen described Turkey’s decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention as a “terrible signal”.

“It is a groundbreaking legal text and an inspiring document. It is the first internationally binding instrument to take a broad approach to combating violence against women and children,” she said.

“Several EU member states have still not ratified the convention. And others are thinking about quitting. This is not acceptable. Violence against women and children is a crime. We must call it a crime and it must be punished as such.”

The treaty was ratified in Ireland and entered into force in 2019, but the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, and Lithuania have yet to follow suit meaning that the EU as a whole has not joined the convention.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times