A Past that Seems not to Pass

Looking at the freeze frame is disconcerting. A woman is standing and staring at the two men who are sitting down. The video that shows the three of them entering the room is unmistakable. The moment when the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, overtakes Ursula von der Leyen and sits down on one of the two chairs available is equally disconcerting. It is a sign of a past that seems not to pass.

The incident is complex and deserves to be analysed from at least two viewpoints. Let us, therefore, proceed in order.

The first element is that Turkey no longer shows any interest in waiting, hat in hand, for joining the European Union and earn its way into the European family.

This is due to the fact that, especially after the 2008 crisis, the Union is in great difficulty while Turkey feels and operates like an emerging country, trying to establish itself as a regional Mediterranean power and considering Europe as a continent in decline.

The second element is the Turkish claim of diversity and otherness against Europe. Indeed, Turkish President Erdogan’s message is clear: we are different. Women in our culture are one step behind men, and we want to show it to you plastically. There is not only the Western penséé unique of gender equality and ‘political correctness’. Our culture is different, and not even in the presence of the highest authority of the European Union do we renounce to our principles and values, the identity that we are building vis-à-vis Western countries. In this perspective, Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence is one more step on this road.

Therefore, with respect to this episode, we must make some reflections.

Firstly, I believe that we Europeans should reflect more carefully on the risks of our ethnocentrism, on our illusory self-perception, and on how obsolete is the idea that Europe is still at the centre of the world. Illiberal democracies imbued with populism, authoritarian regimes practising discrimination, and stifling dissidence, represent an increasingly dangerous challenge to the European liberal democracy. Against this background, what is worrying is that, instead of being strengthened, the European liberal democracy appears to be hostage of its own inability to respond to economic crises and rising inequalities with effective solutions.

Secondly, we need to reflect on the disqualifying behaviour of Charles Michel. Despite the fact that the institutional hierarchy had dictated that she, Ursula, should be seated and that Charles Michel should wait for another chair to arrive, the President of the European Council did not hesitate to take her seat, forcing the President of the European Commission to sit on a sofa four meters away from the Turkish President. This is an indefensible attitude for the European Union. Not only because the European Union has always been an institution sensitive to gender issues and committed to the fight against discrimination, but also because in the European continent, it has acted as a driving force over countries, including Italy, which have been reluctant to adopt public policies favouring gender equality. Above all, however, this episode shows how the past seems not to pass. In this incident, one can find all those concepts developed in the literature (patriarchal attitudes, benevolent sexism, misogyny) to explain the persistence of habits that are difficult to be eradicated, despite women’s full citizenship on a legislative level. The fact that this shocking gesture was made by a high representative of the European Union should make us reflect and not lower our guard, not resting on the illusion that the objectives of substantive equality between men and women are now and forever being achieved.

Last but not least, I would like to respond to all those who have argued that the President of the European Commission should have turned in her heels and left. If women in top positions and positions of power were to turn around and walk out of the rooms whenever their role is belittled, delegitimised, and trampled upon, not least because of the language of hatred that is often hurled at them, the institutions, the places of politics, the universities, would be empty. On the contrary, women who want to fight the persistent male chauvinism must instead stay, as Ursula did, and show that the ‘king is naked’, trying every day to build a better world, in which respect between women and men is the fundamental principle.

Anna Loretoni, Full Professor of Political Philosophy, Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna – Pisa