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'I felt alone as a woman': von der Leyen says Turkey chair controversy wouldn't have happened to a man

The commission president was denied a chair at top-level talks in Ankara this month.

Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a debate in the European Parliament yesterday
Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a debate in the European Parliament yesterday
Image: AP/PA Images

URSULA VON DER Leyen has said that a recent controversy in Turkey where she was denied a chair at top-level talks emphasises the EU’s need to tackle sexism.

In comments to MEPs about the incident, which has been dubbed “sofagate”, the European Commission president also took apparent aim at European Council chief Charles Michel.

Much of the commentary on the affair has focused on Turkish President Recep Tayyip’s Erdogan’s diplomatic faux pas in failing to provide a chair for von der Leyen.

But von der Leyen told the European Parliament that she could see no reason in the EU’s own rules why she should have been treated differently to Michel.

Michel was quick to take the single chair set out next to Erdogan and the EU and Turkish flags, relegating a visibly annoyed von der Leyen to a sofa further away.

“I am the first woman to be President of the European Commission. I am the President of the European Commission,” she said, ahead of a parliamentary debate on EU-Turkey ties.

“And this is how I expected to be treated when visiting Turkey two weeks ago, like a commission president, but I was not. I cannot find any justification for what I was treated in the European treaties.

“So I have to conclude that had happened because I am a woman.”

She added: “I felt hurt and I felt alone as a woman, and as a European.”

Immediately after the meeting in Ankara earlier this month, when footage emerged of von der Leyen’s embarrassment, some European officials stressed that Michel is technically her senior in the diplomatic hierarchy.

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But von der Leyen has made it clear that she expects to be treated as an equal with her fellow EU leader.

And she said that not only must a respect for women’s rights be “a prerequisite for a resumption of dialogue with Turkey”, but that Europe itself must do better on this front.

Turkey has been criticised for withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention on halting violence against women but, as von der Leyen recalled, several EU members have still not ratified the treaty at all.

“And others are thinking about quitting. This is not acceptable,” she said, warning that she would try to find a way for the EU itself to join the convention despite resistance from some capitals.

© AFP 2021

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