The political scandal known as #Sofagate took place in early April, when European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara for talks aimed at easing relations between the European Union and Turkey. A meeting of equals, one might suppose. But by “chance”, Ursula von der Leyen was left without a chair and was forced first to wait standing, then to sit on a sofa, in front of the two men. At best we could call it bad planning and at worst it was a deliberate action to keep the woman in her place. Lately, in one of the most passionate speeches of her mandate – made in front of the European Parliament, the President of the European Council, said the incident made her feel “hurt and alone, as a woman and as a European”.
This protocol incident launched a heated debate on both women’s rights in Turkey and persistent sexism in general, in all public spheres, including politics. The incident clearly demonstrated that mistreatment of women cuts across class and rank lines. But it is important to acknowledge that what happened to von der Leyen is not a women’s issue, it is everyone’s issue. And the EU itself must do better in this regard.
Gender equality and the fight to counter all types of discrimination against women lies at the core of the European Union’s treaties: it is included in articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty on the European Union (principle of the equality between men and women), in articles 8 and 19 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which stipulates that the Union – in all of its actions, ensures the respect of equality between men and women.
The EU must take on the role of the world’s leading promoter and defender of women’s rights. And given the fact that Turkey has moved away from the rule of law, democracy, and fundamental freedoms in the last decade, women’s rights must be a prerequisite for a resumption of dialogue with Ankara. This is especially important after Turkey announced its withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a legally binding treaty which upholds women’s fundamental right to a life free from violence and leaving it would deprive Turkey and Turkish women of a vital tool to counter violence against them. Once the Istanbul Convention seemed relatively uncontroversial, but it has been the victim of misrepresentation even among European states. Particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, ultra-conservative and religious groups have distorted its objectives to get political dividends.
Considering the spike in domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence during the coronavirus pandemic, the relevance of the Istanbul Convention cannot be overstated. In addition to the tools and framework it provides for governments, it sends an extremely important political signal that violence against women is not a private matter. Turkey’s withdrawal from the convention not only compromises the safety of women in the country but also facilitates campaigns of disinformation and accepts backsliding on regulations around domestic violence and women’s rights elsewhere.
What can the EU do more for women?
If we analyse global data and statistics, despite the progress that still has to be made, Europe is the continent that provides the best living conditions for women. Particularly EU, that is on the leading edge of women’s rights, has moved forward positively over the last decades. One of the most telling examples could be the European Commission itself, that made progress on women’s participation in politics and increased female representation in decision-making, with the first-ever gender-balanced College of Commissioners in the EU’s history.
Last year, the Commission adopted its Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, the first deliverable on President von der Leyen’s commitment to a Union of Equality. It sets out an ambitious framework for the next 5 years on how to advance gender equality in Europe and beyond.
The Commission made significant efforts to fight against gender-based violence by publishing, in June 2020, it’s first-ever EU victims’ rights strategy and by launching, in February 2021, an open public consultation on a new legislative initiative to better support victims and prosecute perpetrators of gender-based violence. It also continued its efforts to accede to the Istanbul Convention.
The Commission addressed the issue of online violence with its proposal for a Digital Services Act, adopted in December 2020, which clarifies the responsibilities of online platforms, thereby contributing to making the internet safer for women.
With the adoption of the proposal for a Directive strengthening the equal pay principle through pay transparency and enforcement mechanisms in early March 2021, the Commission has taken a major step to improve the respect of the right to equal pay and tackle pay discrimination.
Also, in early March 2021, the Commission adopted an Action Plan to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights, which puts gender equality at its core and establishes, amongst others, ambitious targets for women’s participation in the labour market and the provision of early childhood education and care which is very important in this context.
The Commission also strengthened gender equality and women’s empowerment outside of the EU through the new Gender 3 Action Plan (GAP III) for 2021-2025. The new multi-annual financial framework for 2021-2027 promotes gender-equality both through strengthened gender mainstreaming and targeted actions of specific EU spending programmes.
Following the COVID-19 crisis, the Next Generation EU recovery instrument requires Member States to explain how the measures in their national recovery plans will contribute to gender equality, thus ensuring a gender equal and fair recovery in the EU. Through concrete steps, the EU is constantly demonstrating its serious commitment to this women’s issue. And in doing so, experience shows that the EU should not stop at its borders. Enabling Europe to be a globally unchallenged champion in this area is a vital goal, which could create positive prerequisites for the whole world. This could be the best answer for authoritarian regimes, and a guarantee that incidents like Sofagate will no longer be tolerated anywhere in the world.