The European Union’s first female chief executive vowed on Monday to fight for women’s rights after she was denied a chair during a meeting in Ankara with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan in what has become known as ‘Sofagate’ two weeks ago.
Speaking to the European Parliament, a visibly angry Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the April 6 episode – where she was relegated to an adjacent sofa while Erdogan and European Council President Charles Michel sat in prepared chairs – showed disdain for female politicians.
“I cannot find any justification for how I was treated … so I have to conclude that it happened because I am a woman,” von der Leyen said, questioning whether the same would have happened had she been a man.
Video footage on April 6 during the Ankara visit showed von der Leyen clearly taken aback when the two men sat on the only two chairs prepared, relegating her to an adjacent sofa.
“I felt hurt, and I felt alone as a woman and as a European,” von der Leyen told EU lawmakers, in a swipe at Michel who was heavily criticised by many EU politicians for not intervening on her behalf in Ankara.
“I am the president of the European Commission, and this is how I expected to be treated when visiting Turkey (…) but I was not,” von der Leyen said. “This shows how far we still have to go before women are treated as equals – always and everywhere.”
Speaking to parliament, Michel again expressed his regret over the situation, which he said he understood offended many women. He also told lawmakers that deeper economic ties with Turkey were difficult because of a deterioration of basic rights and freedoms in Turkey, including those of women.