The quiet rise of Ursula von der Leyen

Eu leaders picked German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen as the next European Commission President. EPA-EFE/FILIP SINGER

German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, a compromise name for the next  European Commission President, is a non-divisive political figure on EU stage and quiet tactician hardly known outside Germany. But her career at home has often been marked by scandals.

As leaders of the EU-28 fought over several compromise deals which finally collapsed, the 60-year old mother of seven emerged from the shadows as their favourite nominee for the top job.

If approved by the European Parliament, she will be the first woman to take on the Commission presidency. She is a staunch supporter of strong Euro-Atlantic ties and has acknowledged the need for more defence spending in Germany. On the international stage, she stood for diplomacy and multilateralism.

Just like her surprise nomination for the top EU job, von der Leyen’s appointment as Germany’s defence minister in 2013, after months of grand coalition talks, also came as rather a surprise to many.

She was born in 1958 in Brussels, where her father, Ernst Albrecht, served as head of the private office of Hans von der Groeben, one of Germany’s two members of the newly-created European Commission.

Von der Leyen studied economics at London’s LSE and medicine in Hanover before going into politics when her family returned to Lower Saxony. A long-time close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, she has been a member of the conservative CDU party since 1990.

After serving as minister for family affairs since 2005, critics expected that she would join the women who held the post before her and sink back into insignificance.

In her first 100 days in office, she managed to stay in the news with calls for free day-care and for funds for stay-at-home parents, including a fight with then finance minister Peer Steinbrück over how to finance the proposed measures.

Accusations of plagiarism related to her thesis did not amount to much: the Hannover Medical School decided in 2016 to keep her title, despite “clear defects” in her work.

For the articulate and telegenic von der Leyen, who is fluent in English and French, this post proved to be a springboard for a career that took her from local government posts in the Hanover region, with stints as family minister and labour minister, to one of the most important federal ministries in just ten years.

Dismissed as a lightweight, she took over the defence ministry as the first woman in this position with a lot of headwinds.

In her first 100 days in this office, she had to deal with the various legacy problems left behind by her predecessors such as personnel shortage and shortcomings in the ministry’s planning processes.

In the meantime, von der Leyen was also considered as a possible successor to Merkel, but lacked real power and leverage inside the CDU party to gather support as her ambitious strive to the top has been viewed critically.

Her days as German defence minister had been somewhat tainted by domestic scandals and defence planning failures, including broken planes, inoperable submarines and non-firing guns.

During her term, the list of various equipment deficiencies in Germany’s armed forces grew longer, followed by a series of accidents and an affair involving external ministry advisors, which she is currently under parliamentary investigation in the German Bundestag for.

Only last week, the German Bundeswehr suffered a heavy blow after two German air force jets were involved in a mid-air collision during a military exercise over north-eastern Germany.

Von der Leyen has been severely critised for having ignored right-wing tendencies in the German army, the Bundeswehr. Although evidence of extreme right-wing ideology in the army has been known for years, critics said she had done too little, too late.

A “convinced European” and staunch integrationist, von der Leyen finds herself among the most prominent advocates of a more assertive role for German foreign and security policy within the EU. She is also keen on having closer military cooperation inside the bloc.

Two weeks ago, in the presence of French President Emmanuel Macron, on the sidelines of the world’s largest air show, together with her colleagues from France and Spain, she signed an agreement launching a trilateral framework of cooperation to design a next-generation fighter jet.

Next-generation European fighter jet cooperation ready for take-off

Germany, France and Spain inked on Monday (17 June) a framework agreement for the joint construction of Europe’s largest arms project to date, the so-called Future Air Combat System (FCAS).

According to French government sources, it was Macron who proposed von der Leyen to the EU leaders negotiations, after he had got to know her during the signing ceremony, despite differences between Paris and Berlin on conceptual matters for a common future “European army” and European arms exports policy.

However, German defence policy under her reign has come under heavy fire.

The suggestion that Germany might deliberately miss its own defence spending target, which is already short of the NATO goal, has triggered harsh responses not only from European allies, but also from Washington.

Her defensive speech at this year’s Munich Security Conference, however, illustrated how strongly Berlin is under pressure in its security policy. Right from the start, the minister admitted that the US demand for higher defence spending was justified.

“We Europeans need to throw more weight in. The American call for more fairness in burden-sharing is justified,” von der Leyen said in Munich.

She pointed to the increase in European defence spending, but at the same time highlighted Europe’s efforts towards its own common defence policy. Europe has finally “made its way towards a European Defence Union”, which also includes a strengthening of NATO.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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