Ursula von der Leyen, the first female president of the European commission, has said she was hurt and alone after being left by two male leaders without a chair at a summit in Turkey, describing it as evidence of the unequal treatment of the sexes.
In one of the most impassioned speeches of her tenure – made in the presence of Charles Michel, the president of the European council, who was one of the two men at the talks – Von der Leyen said she had been left standing because she was a woman.
Von der Leyen told the European parliament that video footage of the incident earlier this month, dubbed “sofagate”, spoke for itself. Entering the room, Michel and Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had taken the two chairs laid out, leaving her standing alone. Von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, was then relegated to a sofa at the two mens’ side.
“I am the first woman to be president of the European commission. I am the president of the European commission. And this is how I expected to be treated when visiting Turkey two weeks ago, like, a commission president – but I was not,” she told MEPs and Michel.
“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. Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie? 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, neither. Honourable members, many of you will have made quite similar experiences in the past, especially the female members of this house.”
The video footage of the incident in the Turkish presidential complex had shown a visibly astonished Von der Leyen gesticulate at the two men as they sat down. “Ehm”, she had muttered. Neither of the men reacted to her discomfort.
“I felt hurt. And I felt alone – as a woman and as a European. Because it is not about seating arrangements or protocol,” Von der Leyen said. “This goes to the core of who we are. This is what our union stands for. And this shows how far we still have to go before women are treated as equals, always and everywhere.”
The commission president went on: “Of course I know that I am in a privileged position.
“I am the president of an institution which is highly respected all around the world, and even more important, as a leader, I can speak up and make myself heard.
“But what about the millions of women who cannot. Women who are heard every day in every corner of our planet. But neither have the power, nor hold the office to speak up.
“When I arrived at the meeting, there were cameras in the room.
“Thanks to them, the short video of my arrival immediately went viral, and caused headlines around the world. There was no need for subtitles. There was no need for translations, the images, spoke for themselves.
“But we all know, thousands of similar incidents, most of them far more serious go unobserved, nobody ever sees them, or hears about them, because there is no camera, because there is nobody paying attention. We have to make sure that these stories are told too”.
The incident has proven to be a disaster for Michel, with rumours abounding that the heads of state and government may not renew the former Belgian prime minister’s presidency. Among the issues discussed at the summit had been Turkey’s decision to leave the Istanbul convention on gender-based violence.
Ahead of Von der Leyen’s speech, Michel said he would ensure that such a “protocol incident” would never be repeated, adding that he had not reacted at the time for fear of undermining the purpose of the visit.
He said: “I have expressed my regret, publicly for the situation that was created. My apologies to the commission, and all those who felt offended.
“The facts behind it are well known, the council protocol team did not get access to the meeting room before the meeting was held, and the commission did not send its protocol team in advance. The teams did not enjoy access to seat allocation before the meeting started.
“Ursula von der Leyen and myself have committed to ensure that that situation can no longer occur in the future, and we’ve given instructions along those lines to our protocol and diplomatic teams.”
He added: “I know that these circumstances led a number of you to believe that at that point I should have taken a different line of conduct, and obviously I hear that criticism, but at that time, and without the hindsight we all have today, I decided not to react further so as not to create a political incident that I thought would be still more serious and would risk ruining months of political and diplomatic groundwork, made by all our teams at a European level.
“Now, of course I understand the images will have offended many women, and I would like to reaffirm my total full and absolute commitment to support women and gender equality. This is a matter that I’ve regularly dealt with in my political career.”