Ursula von der Leyen: The making of Europe’s top leader

Why We Wrote This

The presidency of the European Commission is one of the most important offices of the EU, making its occupant critical to the functioning of the bloc. Few expected Ursula von der Leyen to fill that role.

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Incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrives for an EU summit in Brussels, Oct. 18, 2019. She is taking over at a delicate moment, with the union’s 28 members divided over issues such as immigration and climate change.

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Dr. Ursula von der Leyen, the new president of the European Commission, arrives in Brussels with the reputation of a resilient and determined survivor. And she is taking over at a delicate moment, with the union’s 28 members divided over issues such as immigration and climate change, and Britain expected to pull out of the EU early next year.

As president of the commission she will shape the EU’s policy agenda and sit atop the institution that supervises member states’ budgets, handles international trade negotiations, and acts as a competition watchdog.

But Dr. von der Leyen, the first woman to take the European Union’s top job, has impeccable credentials for the post, observers say. She was born in Brussels where her father was one of the pioneer pan-European diplomats, she speaks fluent English and French, and in her ministerial career she has forged close ties with Germany’s neighbors.

“She doesn’t just believe in Europe, she embodies that and radiates it,” says Jan Techau, a political analyst at The German Marshall Fund of the United States. “That is a huge part of the deal.”

When Daniel Goffart and Ulrike Demmer published their biography of Dr. Ursula von der Leyen five years ago, the reason for their interest in Germany’s then-defense minister was clear from the book’s title: “The Chancellor in Waiting.”

Now their publisher is rushing out a new edition, titled simply “Ursula von der Leyen.” She is not going to be Angela Merkel’s successor, as her biographers had expected. Instead, to continent-wide surprise, Dr. von der Leyen has become president of the European Commission, her term having started on Dec. 1.

Dr. von der Leyen emerged unexpectedly as a compromise presidential nominee in July, breaking an EU summit deadlock over how to share out the bloc’s top jobs. She is taking over at a delicate moment, with the union’s 28 members divided over issues such as immigration and climate change, and Britain expected to pull out of the EU early next year. 

As president of the commission she will shape the EU’s policy agenda and sit atop the institution that supervises member states’ budgets, handles international trade negotiations, and acts as a competition watchdog.

But Dr. von der Leyen, the first woman to take the European Union’s top job, has impeccable credentials for the post, observers say. She was born in Brussels where her father was one of the pioneer pan-European diplomats, she speaks fluent English and French, and in her ministerial career she has forged close ties with Germany’s neighbors.

“She doesn’t just believe in Europe, she embodies that and radiates it,” says Jan Techau, a political analyst at The German Marshall Fund of the United States think tank in Berlin. “That is a huge part of the deal.”

Dragging her party into the 21st century

Dr. von der Leyen arrives in Brussels with the reputation of a resilient and determined survivor, the only minister to have served in all of Chancellor Merkel’s cabinets since 2005 (while raising seven children).

She has politics in her blood. Her father became state premier of Lower Saxony and Ursula was his favorite daughter, says Mr. Goffart. “She would sit next to him and follow his discussions with his political visitors. She was infected with politics from childhood.”

But she did not immediately choose a political career. She studied economics and then medicine, going on to practice as a gynecologist. Only when she was 42 did she follow in her father’s footsteps.

She may have started late, but she moved fast, propelled by her famous pedigree, her TV-friendly style, and her appetite for work. No sooner had she won her first election to the state parliament in Lower Saxony than she was made a state minister. Two years later Ms. Merkel tapped her to be family affairs minister in her first government.

In that job, and later as labor minister, she made a name for herself as a briskly modern reformer dragging her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union, kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

The CDU was largely a party of old white men who thought a woman’s role should be limited to kinder, küche, kirche – children, kitchen, church – says Mr. Goffart. “Merkel and von der Leyen abolished that.”

Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attend the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party congress in Leipzig, Germany, Nov. 22, 2019. The general perception in Germany three months ago was that Ms. von der Leyen's political career appeared to be reaching its end.

Among Dr. von der Leyen’s hallmark policies with a strong feminist flavor: providing daycare for all infants over 12 months, two months’ paternity leave for new fathers, and women’s quotas in the boardroom (though parliament voted this down). She also supported same-sex marriage.

Such reforms “were a very important cornerstone of her career,” says Mr. Goffart.

Though she comes from a conservative background, “she is on the progressive wing of the CDU,” says Mr. Techau. “She is not a conservative hardliner.”

Dr. von der Leyen herself has spoken of an “inner freedom” that she acquired in London during a year studying at the London School of Economics in the late 1970s, although she also admitted, in an interview with the German weekly “Zeit,” that “I lived much more than I studied.

“London was the epitome of modernity: freedom, the joy of life, trying everything,” she recalled in the interview. “For me, coming from the rather monotonous, white Germany, that was fascinating.”

She also has fond memories of her years in California, where she lived when her husband was teaching at Stanford University, Mr. Goffart says. “She found Americans much more tolerant of noisy kids than Germans. She said it was a lot easier to live with children there.”

While her years abroad may have given Dr. von der Leyen an international outlook, she honed her political skills in Germany, where negotiation and compromise form the bedrock of political life. “That’s her strength,” says Mr. Goffart. “She is used to finding compromises and that’s what you need in the EU.”

“A little over the top”

Already Dr. von der Leyen has shown signs of her inclination to be a conciliator, coming up with a policy platform striving for balance, that offers something to as many competing interest groups as possible.

But she is by no means a pushover, argues Mr. Techau. When she took over the Defense Ministry soon after Berlin abolished conscription, he recalls, she brought in measures to make military life more family friendly so as to attract more volunteers. “Old soldiers and pundits gave her a lot of stick for that, but she showed no nerves and it paid off,” he recalls.

Her public image, he adds, is of a “strong-minded” woman. “There is a strictness to her, a directness, even a certain hardness.”

Dr. von der Leyen has also attracted criticism from CDU colleagues for grandstanding, reveling in photo ops that advance her own career and “sometimes going a little over the top,” explains Mr. Goffart, such as when she visited a German Air Force base looking like Tom Cruise, in “Top Gun”-style aviator sunglasses.

If such behavior has made her enemies in her own party, her performance at the Defense Ministry – where she had several run-ins with the top military brass – has disappointed many Germans; she left office as the second least popular minster in the cabinet. “She was a falling star,” says Dr. Gero Neugebauer, who teaches politics at the Free University of Berlin. “She started strong and ended weak. But she survived.”

The general perception that she had failed at the Defense Ministry, however, put an end to her ambition to succeed her boss, Ms. Merkel, and three months ago her political career appeared to be reaching its end.

“Perhaps she was surprised by her good luck,” says Mr. Goffart. “I think she must be really happy now to have a chance that she never expected.”

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