Our democracies are stronger when women are involved as equals

Not because we are better, but because we have a different view of the world and see other risks and opportunities

Photo: EP Ursula von der Leyen.

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.

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? 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.

Many of you will have made quite similar experiences in the past. Especially the female members of this House, I am sure, know exactly how I felt. I felt hurt and left alone: As a woman and as a European. Because this 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.

Of course, I know that I am in a privileged position. I am the President of an institution, which is highly respected all around the world. And, even more important, as a leader, I can speak up and make myself heard. But what about millions of women who cannot? Women, who are hurt every day in every corner of our planet but neither have the power nor hold the office to speak up?

When I arrived at the meeting, there were cameras in the room. Thanks to them, the short video of my arrival immediately went viral and caused headlines around the world. There was no need for subtitles. There was no need for translations. The images spoke for themselves.

But we all know: Thousands of similar incidents, most of them far more serious, go unobserved. Nobody ever sees them or hears about them. Because there is no camera. Because there is nobody paying attention. We have to make sure that these stories are also told! And that, when they are told, they are acted upon.

The Istanbul Convention is an important tool for that. In May, it will be ten years since this Convention was signed. It is a groundbreaking legal text and an inspiring document. It is the first internationally binding instrument to take a broad approach to combating violence against women and children. The Convention prohibits psychological violence, sexual harassment and stalking. And it outlaws domestic violence. I do not need to tell you how important that is. Especially now, in the times of the pandemic.

I used the meeting in Ankara to reiterate my deep concerns about Turkey withdrawing from the Convention. The withdrawal of one of the founding members of the Council of Europe is a terrible signal. To be credible, however, we must not only criticise others. To be credible, we also have to act at home.

You all know: Several EU Member States have still not ratified the Convention. And others are thinking about quitting. This is not acceptable. Violence against women and children is a crime. We must call it a crime and it must be punished as such. This is why I want the EU itself to join the Istanbul Convention. This remains a priority for my Commission.

But as the EU's accession is stalled in Council, we will, before the end of the year, present alternative measures: We will put forward legislation to prevent and combat violence against women and children – online and offline.

And we will – my second point – propose to extend the list of Euro-crimes set out in the Treaty, to include all forms of hate crime. Because Europe needs to send a strong signal that hate crime is not acceptable. Because we have to make sure that women and girls are adequately protected everywhere in Europe. Because what U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris just recently said at the United Nations is true: The status of women is the status of democracy.

Our democracies are stronger when women are involved as equals. Not because women are better. But because we are different. We have a different view of the world and see other risks and opportunities. To see the world in full we need women and men. This is the only way we will be able to make the right decisions. And it is the only way we will be able to achieve maximum success.

On Friday, I visited the Pfizer plant in Puurs, Belgium. There I met Dr Özlem Türeci. She is the co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of BioNTech, the company that developed the first approved messenger RNA-based vaccine against COVID-19. As a young girl, Özlem Türeci grew up with her grandparents in Istanbul. She then came to Germany, where she went to school and studied medicine.

Today, BioNTech and Pfizer stand together at the heart of our European vaccination campaign. A campaign that is gathering pace by the day. So far 129 million vaccines have been administered in the EU. Approximately 26% of adults have received at least one dose. And this week some 30 million additional doses will be delivered throughout our Union. Thanks in part to Özlem Türeci whose story shows what great forces are unleashed when women have the same opportunities and when their abilities are respected. And a story that shows why we need more women in leadership roles.

Here, the EU should lead by example. And we are doing so. For the first time in the history of the Commission men and women are represented in equal numbers in the College of the European Commission. I want to repeat this success at all management levels of the Commission. We are not yet there. But nevertheless: women currently occupy more than 40% of the Commission's top posts.

I invite the other European Union institutions to follow our example. Not only the Commission, but also the Council, the Parliament's administration and other EU bodies all still have a long way to go. So the Commission will soon be convening a meeting with the other institutions to discuss how we can all do better. Half of Europe´s population are women. And this has to be reflected in the institutions at the heart of Europe.

At the March European Council the Heads of State or Government made clear that respect for women's rights is an important precondition for us to re-engage with Turkey – and to broaden our common agenda. But it is far from being the only precondition.

In Ankara, I pressed home the point that Turkey has to continue on its path of de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean. It has to accept the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. These are our conditions to step up our economic cooperation with Turkey, and to start high-level dialogue on topics such as climate change, public health and regional issues.

This would then also make it much easier to provide fresh money to help Turkey´s efforts in accommodating more than four million refugees from Syria. Efforts that we applaud.

When we speak about respect and dignity we must not only speak about men and women. This question is bigger than gender. We cannot allow LGBT-free zones to spread in our Member States.

We cannot allow Roma to be discriminated against in Europe. And we absolutely cannot allow the ugly face of anti-semitism and racism to show itself in any corner of our Union. Europe is so much better than that!

Sometimes I am amazed that we even have to talk about such self-evident things in 2021. That we still have to stress the point that all across Europe people must have equal rights and equal opportunities: Regardless of whom they love, where they come from. Regardless of how old they are or the faith they hold.

Because this is the Union I believe in. A Union, which lives up to its motto: united in diversity. For me, these three words have always expressed a solemn pledge. At home and abroad. Today and in the future.

Long live Europe.

 

This speech by EC President von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary on the conclusions of the European Council meeting of 25-26 March 2021 and the outcome of the high-level meeting between the EU and Turkey, was delivered on 26 April.

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