Ursula von der Leyen said Monday that she felt “hurt and alone” during a meeting with Turkey’s president last month and that she was treated poorly simply because she is a woman.
The first female president of the European Commission and European Council President Charles Michel met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara for talks on tense EU-Turkey relations.
But only two chairs were set out in front of the EU and Turkish flags for the three leaders and the two men sat in them.
Von der Leyen stood looking at the seated men, expressing her disquiet. She was later seated on a large beige sofa, away from her male counterparts.
In a speech to the European Parliament Plenary on the conclusions of meeting in March, von der Leyen said: “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, 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.
“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,” she said.
“I cannot find any justification for the way I was treated in the European Treaties. So, I have to conclude, it happened because I am a woman. Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie?”
The apparent protocol gaffe at the Turkish presidential palace ignited a public uproar and was quickly dubbed “sofagate”.
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 to the room where the incident happened during their preparatory inspection.
Michel issued a statement in a Facebook post the day after the meeting but did not apologise for his actions, nor did he suggest he was in any way to blame, insisting of the incident had given a false impression.
He later apologised for the incident saying 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 it was fortunate that cameras were present at the meeting and that the images made headlines around the world, but she said that many women’s experiences went unrecorded.