BRUSSELS -- European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Monday that she felt hurt and alone during a meeting with Turkey’s president earlier this month and that she was treated poorly simply because she is a woman.
Von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara for talks on tense EU-Turkey relations earlier this month. But only two chairs were set out in front of the EU and Turkish flags for the three leaders. Michel took the chair next to Erdogan.
Von der Leyen stood looking at the seated men, expressing her astonishment with an “ehm” sound, and a gesture of disappointment. She was later seen seated on a large beige sofa, away from her male counterparts.
“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,” von der Leyen told EU lawmakers.
“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,” she said. “Would this have happened if I had worn a suit, and a tie?”
Von der Leyen, who didn't publicly blame either Erdogan or Michel for the incident, said she saw no shortage of chairs in other similar meetings in the past, or many women for that matter.
“I felt hurt, and I felt alone, as a woman, and as a European. Because it 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 said.
The apparent protocol gaffe at the Turkish presidential palace ignited a public uproar. Turkey insisted that the EU’s own protocol requests were applied but the European Council head of protocol said his team didn't have access, during their preparatory inspection, to the room where the incident happened.
Michel apologized Monday for the incident. He said he should have given up his seat but that he was concerned about sparking a broader diplomatic incident, especially given the poor state of relations between Turkey and the 27-nation bloc.
Von der Leyen said that fortunately cameras were present at the meeting and that the images made headlines around the world, but she said that many women aren't so lucky, and she noted the increase in violence against women and children during the coronavirus pandemic.
The head of the EU’s executive branch, whose speech was praised by several lawmakers, also said that during the talks with Erdogan she raised Turkey’s decision to abandon the Istanbul Convention, which is aimed at combating violence against women.
“The withdrawal of one of the founding members of the Council of Europe is a terrible signal,” von der Leyen said, but she also noted that several EU member countries haven't ratified the convention and that others are even considering pulling out.
“This is not acceptable. Any kind of violence against women and children is a crime. We must call it a crime and it must be punished as such,” she said.
Von der Leyen said she wants the EU itself to join the convention, but that the move is being blocked by some member countries. She said that by the end of the year the European Commission “will put forward alternative legislation to prevent and combat violence against women and children, offline and online.”