For the first time since the diplomatic gaffe in Ankara earlier this month, widely dubbed ‘SofaGate’, Ursula von der Leyen gave members of Parliament a raw insight into her feelings on the incident.
The diplomatic snub saw von der Leyen relegated to a sofa, while Council President Charles Michel and Turkish President Recep Erdoğan took their places on the two gilded chairs provided for the leaders in the centre of the room.
Both Michel and Erdoğan came under heavy criticism for the incident and policymakers across the political divide demanded an apology from Michel for what was widely perceived as his indifference to the humiliation of his Commission counterpart.
Breaking her silence on the matter, von der Leyen addressed Monday’s plenary, saying, “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 said as there was no justification for the way she was treated in the European Treaties, she could only 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 woman in these pictures, either.”
“Charles Michel’s lack of judgement was embarrassing. A terrible example of macho culture. In gender equality issues, we still have many lessons to learn” Esteban González Pons, EPP
She told MEPs, “Many of you will have had quite similar experiences in the past. 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.”
She went on to explain that as the President of an institution which is highly respected all around the world, she is in a privileged position and as a leader, she can speak up and make herself heard, adding, “But what about the millions of women who cannot? Women, who are hurt 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.”
She added, “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 also told, and that, when they are told, they are acted upon.”
Michel, also speaking during the plenary session, started by saying that regarding the protocol incident in Ankara, “I have publicly expressed my regret on several occasions - regret towards the President of the Commission and towards all those who felt offended.”
“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 woman in these pictures, either” Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President
He explained that the Commission had not sent its protocol team to Turkey and the Council protocol team had not been granted access to the meeting room prior to the meeting, adding, “the teams were therefore unable to see the seating arrangement in advance.”
“President von der Leyen and I are committed to ensuring that this does not happen again. We have mandated our protocol and diplomatic teams to work closely together in this regard.”
He told MEPs he was aware that “many of you think I should have acted differently. I hear this review and take note of it.”
He said, “At that moment, and without the hindsight we all have now, I decided not to react further so as not to create an even more serious political incident, which would have ruined months of diplomatic preparations. But I appreciate the negative impression the images give as well as the feeling of many women who were offended by the incident.”
“I would like to reiterate my true commitment to supporting women and gender equality. This is a question that I have addressed throughout my political career.”
MEPs were quick to react to the statements by the two presidents and many took aim at Michel.
“I don't expect much from President Erdoğan - he cancels the Istanbul Convention and does nothing to protect women. But from you, Charles Michel, I'd have expected different” Ska Keller, Greens/EFA co-leader
Greens/EFA co-leader Ska Keller said, “I don't expect much from President Erdoğan - he cancels the Istanbul Convention and does nothing to protect women. But from you, Charles Michel, I'd have expected different. If you treat President von der Leyen like this, no woman can expect a different treatment.”
Fellow Greens/EFA MEP Ernest Urtasun, a member of Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) Committee, said that Michel would never have left former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on the sofa as he did with von der Leyen.
“It happened because she is a woman. Sofagate is a clear case of discrimination against a woman,” he added.
Dutch Renew Europe deputy Sophie in ‘t Veld said, “Sofagate was embarrassing and avoidable. I support von der Leyen as a woman leader, and now I call on her to also be tough on the mini- Erdoğans within Europe, who attack women’s rights, judicial independence and the free press.”
PES Women, which promotes gender equality and women’s representation both inside and outside the Party of European Socialists, said it was glad to see SofaGate addressed in the plenary “with a clear message to put gender equality at the centre of the way we think, act and do politics.”
“Charles Michel, it's time to act now and to see real action. We have an idea for you: a gender equality council.”
“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” Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President
Spanish EPP MEP Esteban González Pons described von der Leyen’s treatment in Ankara as “an attack on all women and on the dignity of our institutions.”
He added, “Charles Michel’s lack of judgement was embarrassing. A terrible example of macho culture. In gender equality issues, we still have many lessons to learn.”
Fellow EPP member Frances Fitgerald, another FEMM Committee member, said, “Women from around the world watched the scene from Turkey with shock, dismay and that all-too-familiar feeling of being sidelined.”
“President von der Leyen, if this can happen to you, as President of the European Commission in public, it can and does happen to women daily.”