EU chief felt 'hurt,' 'alone' at meeting with Turkish leader

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a debate in the plenary at the European Parliament in Brussels, Monday, April 26, 2021. European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen were reporting back to the parliament on Monday regarding their meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this month aimed at improving strained EU-Turkey relations. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, Pool)

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.