The German European: how Ursula von der Leyen rose to become EU president

After the struggles of leading the German defence ministry, von der Leyen has returned to her original home. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

When Ursula von der Leyen narrowly won her confirmation vote to become the next president of the European Commission (the first woman to hold the post), the incumbent took to Twitter to congratulate her. “Willkommen zu Hause” (welcome home), tweeted Jean-Claude Juncker.

Brussels really is home for von der Leyen: she was born there in 1958, when her father worked as a civil servant for the commission, and it was in Brussels that she learned the impeccable French and English she showed off in her speech to the parliament. (She further polished her English during a stint at the London School of Economics in the 1970s).

So von der Leyen’s European credentials are impeccable. She is a federalist, a supporter of deeper European integration. On Brexit, she told the parliament that she supports granting Britain another extension provided there is a “good reason”, though European heads of government will have the final say on that matter. 

But what do voters and her colleagues think of her in Germany? Von der Leyen is a member of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union. She is on the socially progressive wing of the party and was, for example, more supportive of equal marriage than party colleague Angela Merkel. A mother of seven, she has helped modernise the CDU’s view of the family and the workplace, winning plaudits for updating paid leave policies to include more fathers (as family affairs minister from 2005-2009) and pushing for a quota for women on supervisory boards of large firms (as labour minister from 2009-2013).

Times were tougher for von der Leyen as German defence minister, a position she held from 2013 until last week. The job is viewed as a graveyard for ambitious politicians because of the German public’s wariness of foreign deployment and resistance to military spending. In a Nato context, her ministry faced criticism from allies, particularly the US, for Germany’s failure to increase military spending to 2 per cent of GDP.

But defence spending is no measure of success, and minister von der Leyen spent much of her time managing a large government bureaucracy with cultural baggage. Evidence of extremist views in the Bundeswehr (the German armed forces) — a far-right lieutenant posing as a Syrian refugee and plotting terror attacks, Nazi memorabilia found in a barracks — drew a sharp response from von der Leyen, who alleged in 2017 that the military suffered from an “attitude problem” and a “weakness of leadership”. Some in the military hierarchy felt she went too far and resented the remarks.

Von der Leyen is also under fire for awarding, without proper justification, lucrative defence ministry contracts to outside consultancies with which she had personal connections. A Bundestag committee is still investigating the matter.

Many military analysts, however, take a positive view of her tenure, pointing out that she increased the defence budget after years of cuts, improved troops’ equipment, and enabled Germany to play a key role in both Nato missions and the establishment of EU initiatives such as the European Defence Fund. The network of Europe-wide contacts von der Leyen built up in the job likely helped her secure the nomination.

Her calls for an “army of Europeans” — Nigel Farage called her a “fanatic” for wanting one — should be understood as a desire to make member state militaries more interoperable, rather than one to create a military juggernaut commanded from Brussels. In von der Leyen’s vision, national parliaments would still have the final say about deployment.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, for one, is a fan. Merkel brought von der Leyen into her first cabinet in 2005, just two years after the latter became a minister in the state of Lower Saxony. In fact, for a while Merkel appeared to be grooming von der Leyen as her successor. (Merkel’s actual chosen successor and CDU party leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, will take over at the defence ministry.)

But von der Leyen never truly had enough allies in her own party to succeed Merkel in the Chancellery, perhaps because she was always something of an outsider, personally and ideologically. She joined the CDU at the relatively late age of 32 and spent years working as a doctor and taking care of her family before her rapid rise as a member of Merkel’s team.

That’s not to say von der Leyen is especially popular with Germany’s other major parties. All of the Social Democratic MEPs broke with their European colleagues to reject von der Leyen in the confirmation vote. The German SPD even distributed a letter in Brussels stating that she was an “inadequate and inappropriate candidate”. The Greens in Europe — the party is surging in Germany and could take over the Chancellery at the next election — also whipped to vote against von der Leyen, though their opposition is not all personal, but rather due to the fact that she is not a Spitzenkandidat (the lead candidate put forward by each parliamentary bloc in the European elections). 

The German public are not fans either. According to the most recent SPON poll, 68 per cent are unsatisfied with her work as defence minister. Defence minister is a tough job, but that’s a strikingly poor number. 

Nevertheless, many Germans are pleased that one of their countrymen — or rather women — will head the European Commission for the first time in 50 years. Putting a German face on the EU could improve the Commission’s messaging towards Europe’s biggest member state.

Von der Leyen is a highly competent politician, well respected by her European colleagues. Just as importantly, she had all the right characteristics for success in the idiosyncratic horse trading the EU uses to determine its leaders. Germans will be keeping a close eye on the EU’s new leader as she leaves home, to come home.

Noah Gordon is an editor at Berlin Policy Journal