DIPLOMACY

'No justification': Von der Leyen accuses Turkey of sexism after protocol gaffe

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expresses dismay at being left without a chair during diplomatic talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expresses dismay at being left without a chair during diplomatic talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. . TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/AFP/Archivos

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has pledged to fight for women’s rights after admitting she felt "hurt" and "alone" when she was left without a chair during diplomatic talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.

Advertising

"I am the first woman president of the European Commission, and I want to be treated as president of the Commission,” von der Leyen, a mother of seven, told the European Parliament in an emotional speech Monday.

Dubbed “Sofagate”, the incident saw von der Leyen relegated to the couch after European Council President Charles Michel and Erdogan sat down in the only two chairs that had been made available for the meeting – both positioned in front of the EU and Turkish flags.

Footage of the incident quickly went viral when von der Leyen expressed her clear dismay at the protocol gaffe with a pronounced “erm”, before then taking a seat apart from her fellow leaders. 

'Because I'm a woman'

Now, almost three weeks on, the EU Commission president says she “cannot find any justification” in the European treaties for how she was treated during the talks, intended to soothe tensions between Brussels and Ankara. 

“So, I have to conclude that this happened because I am a woman,” she said before linking the snub with Erdogan's decision to withdraw Turkey from the Istanbul Convention on the prevention of violence against women.

Describing the move as a "terrible signal”, von de Leyen asked European leaders to demand that Turkey respect women's rights as a "precondition for the resumption of relations" with Ankara.

She called on all EU members to ratify the convention – a landmark treaty signed in May 2011 that has led to divisions within Europe itself – because “any kind of violence against women and children is a crime”.

Damage control

Relations between von der Leyen and Michel have also deteriorated since their 6 April trip to Turkey, which has damaged the image of the European Council chief.

Addressing the European parliament, Michel expressed his regret over the incident, which he said he knows was offensive to many women.

"We are committed, Ursula von der Leyen and myself, to ensuring that this situation cannot happen again," Michel said.

In response to the Sofagate furore, Turkish diplomatic chief Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country had been the victim of "unfair accusations”, adding the seating arrangements in Ankara had been made in line with European wishes.

“Our protocol services met before the meeting and their (the EU's) requests were respected," Cavusoglu said.

EU leaders are to decide at a summit in June how to proceed regarding their relationship with Turkey.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning