“Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie?” asked Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, after she was left standing during a summit in Turkey this month.
It was an awkward diplomatic moment.
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive branch, was left standing during a visit to Turkey this month as her colleague, Charles Michel, president of the European Council, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey settled into two chairs.
Ms. von der Leyen, the first woman to head the European Commission, weighed in on the situation for the first time on Monday, telling European lawmakers in an unusually frank statement that she had concluded that the blunder had happened because she is a woman.
“Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie?” she asked, speaking to the European Parliament on Monday evening. “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.”
“I felt hurt and left alone: as a woman and as a European,” she added, noting that the oversight was a sign of “how far we still have to go before women are treated as equals.”
Video of the meeting, which was held at the Turkish presidential palace, showed Ms. von der Leyen’s clear surprise as she let out an “um” at the lack of appropriate seating. She quickly settled on a sofa several feet away as Mr. Michel, who ranks equally in the European Union’s hierarchy, and Mr. Erdogan sat in front of the European Union and Turkish flags.
The images caused an immediate storm, with many commenting on the enduring sexism they saw in the moment, and clips spreading swiftly online. #GiveHerASeat was soon trending on Twitter across Europe, and the fallout was labeled #Sofagate.
The incident highlighted what some see as a lack of a unified front in the bloc’s leadership.
After critics questioned why Mr. Michel had not offered Ms. von der Leyen his seat, Mr. Michel blamed Turkish officials for producing a “distressing situation.” He said that he had not intended to be “insensitive” but that he had feared making the situation worse.
“I make no secret of the fact that I haven’t slept well at night since then,” Mr. Michel told the German newspaper Handelsblatt shortly after.
The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said after the incident that the seating arrangement had been decided with input from European representatives and that his government had been unjustly accused of manufacturing the situation.
The European Council, which represents the leaders of the E.U. nations, offered its own explanation.
Dominique-Georges Marro, the council’s head of protocol, said in a statement that officials had not viewed the meeting room ahead of time. He noted that the issue might have come from protocol that “makes a clear distinction between the status of head of state, held by the president of the European Council, and the status of prime minister, held by the president of the Commission.”
Still, many pointed out that seating did not seem to be a problem in 2017, when Mr. Erdogan met with Donald Tusk, then the European Council president, and Jean-Claude Juncker, then the president of the European Commission.
In her speech, Ms. von der Leyen said she had not found “any justification for the way I was treated” based on European government documents.
“So, I have to conclude, it happened because I am a woman,” she said.
The meeting came at a crucial diplomatic moment as Turkey tries to improve a fraught relationship with the European Union and to revive the process of joining the bloc. It also came as the Erdogan government has moved away from rights initiatives intended to empower women, which Ms. von der Leyen pointed to on Monday when she mentioned Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a treaty that combats violence against women.
In Turkey, 38 percent of women who have been married experienced physical or sexual violence during their lifetime, according to 2014 research cited by the United Nations.
The country also ranked 133 among 156 countries in a 2021 World Economics Forum report on the Global Gender Gap.
On Monday, Ms. von der Leyen also made another point: The diplomatic blunder made headlines only because there had been cameras in the room to capture the episode.
But, she added, “Thousands of similar incidents, most of them far more serious, go unobserved.”
By Isabella Kwai The New York Times