The Irish Times view on Ursula von der Leyen and ‘sofagate’: words that resonate

The European Commission president has shown that there is no weakness in voicing hurt

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s words about her treatment in Ankara will have resonated with millions of women and men. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/ AFP via Getty Images

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s words about her treatment in Ankara will have resonated with millions of women and men. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/ AFP via Getty Images

 

If, for some, the so-called Sofagate incident seemed just too crass, too childish, to be pre-meditated, Ursula von der Leyen thought otherwise. “Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and tie?”, she asked in the European Parliament this week.

Images from Ankara of the European Council president Charles Michel and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan remaining seated in two gilded chairs while the visibly frustrated European Commission president von der Leyen is relegated to a lower-status sofa several feet away will long feature in diplomatic nightmares. “In the pictures of previous meetings, I did not see any shortage of chairs but then again I did not see any women in these pictures either,” von der Leyen said.

Von der Leyen’s response, coming nearly three weeks after the incident that was “perhaps a mistake” as Michel put it, was strikingly personal. “I felt hurt and I felt alone, as a woman and as a European”. It was a rare public confrontation by a powerful woman. In a 2019 interview, Angela Merkel said she had consciously chosen not to address the sexism she experienced in office, adding “you can only do this job if you aren’t overly sensitive… I merely take note of the rest”.

Yet von der Leyen’s words will have resonated with millions of women and men, amplified by images that needed little interpretation. Thousands of similar incidents, most of them far more serious, go unobserved, she said. Both men’s behaviour might be viewed in the context of a meeting which included a focus on women’s rights and equality, following Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, which legally obliges governments to take effective steps to prevent and combat violence against women.

The incident exemplifies the petulance, game-playing and macho “politicking” that turn many off public office. Too often women – and many men – are diminished and surreptitiously undermined by colleagues and friends. Von der Leyen has shown that they can be challenged, that there is no weakness in voicing hurt. There is strength in that honesty and yes, power too.

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