Von der Leyen – From Berlin to Brussels?

On July 16th Ursula von der Leyen could be confirmed as the first female president of the European Commission. She is one of two female nominees among the five nominations for EU top jobs brought forward by EU leaders last Tuesday, including Christine Lagarde as President of the European Central Bank, Charles Michel as President of the European Council, Josep Borrell as EU Foreign Policy Chief and David Sassoli as President of the EU Parliament.

Ursula von der Leyen’s sudden nomination came as a surprise, a result of numerous failed attempts for the European Council to reach agreement on any of the Spitzenkandidatinnen selected by political parties in the run-up to the European Elections. As everyone seems to be somewhat unsatisfied with this nomination, this is usually a sign of good compromise.

Von der Leyen, who has stated to be in favor of enlarging the Eurozone and the Schengen area provided countries meet the criteria, and has urged for the EU to be ready for the accession of Western Balkan countries, is a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and is acting German Minister of Defense[1]. She would not only be the first woman to take the position of President of the European Commission, but also the first German to do so since 1958. A reason for celebration in Berlin? By no means.

Merkel didn’t throw this CDU-politician’s name in the ring. In fact, she was even forced to abstain from voting since the CDU’s social democratic governing coalition partner SPD rejected the ‘backroom deal’ candidacy of von der Leyen. They saw it as reneging on a commitment of Merkel to back one of their lead candidates. The criticism and opposition of the German Social Democrats goes beyond the mere procedure of the nomination however.

Martin Schulz, SPD politician and former President of the European Parliament, tweeted “[…] von der Leyen is our weakest minister. That’s apparently enough to become Commission president,” and German SPD MEPs circulated a damning paper calling the Minister of Defense an “inadequate and inappropriate candidate.” This opinion was shared by 56 % of the respondents of the ARD-DeutschlandTREND, a representative survey conducted monthly to read current public opinion trends in Germany, in which only 33% saw von der Leyen as a good candidate for the position of Commission president. This is reason enough to take a closer a look at von der Leyen, as she is a largely unknown political figure to voters outside her national context, never having run for European Parliament.

Von der Leyen was born into a political family. Her father Ernst Albrecht worked for the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community before being elected Prime Minister of the German state of Lower Saxony. Von der Leyen is a product of the German educated elite that has dominated the country’s cultural and political affairs for centuries. Still, von der Leyen didn’t follow in her father’s footsteps right away. She studied economics at two German universities and at the London School of Economics but never graduated, instead continuing on to study medicine in Hannover, graduating in 1987. It was not until 1990 that she joined the Christian Democratic Union party (CDU). She climbed through the ranks in the regional government of Lower Saxony, and eventually became today’s longest serving member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet and one of her close allies. Von der Leyen joined the cabinet of Merkel’s first government in 2005 as Minister for Family, Seniors, Women and Youth, and moved to the Labour Ministry in 2009, before becoming the first female Minister of Defence in 2014.

Even though von der Leyen undoubtedly has plenty of wide-ranging executive experience (and was given a tough task being a woman in a male-dominated sector) her reputation at home has suffered severely over the last few years, mainly because of policy and leadership failures as Minister of Defence, and the overall catastrophic condition of the Bundeswehr. Scandals that eroded confidence in the Ministry of Defence were the unexpectedly high costs of the refurbishment of the military training ship Gorch Fock, a variety of right-wing extremist incidents (including a Bundeswehr lieutenant leading a double life as a Syrian refugee planning a terrorist attack to be blamed on refugees), as well as numerous cases of physical and sexual harassment in Bundeswehr units. Most recently, von der Leyen’s Ministry of Defence was involved in the reporting of dozens of irregularities in the hiring of external consultants worth hundreds of millions of euros and violating public procurement rules, which an investigative committee of the German parliament is currently looking into. The nomination indisputably came at a low point of her political career.

It shouldn’t be left unmentioned that criticism at home is nothing inherently new to the position of the President of the European Commission; Jean-Claude Juncker also had to step down as Prime Minister of Luxembourg when shaken by a spying scandal prior to being elected President of the European Commission.

Nevertheless, the Minister of Defence’s troubles at home stand in stark contrast to her reception on the international stage. Largely unnoticed by the public, she has established a far-reaching international network. Especially in NATO circles, she is highly regarded as a competent, forward-thinking, and polite politician, switching effortlessly between German, English, and French, and with close ties to the French political class, pressing ahead with the largest German-French-Spanish defence project yet, the European Fighter Jet Agreement. She is known as a neutral player and skilled communicator, working to avoid conflict. Many MEPs, however, voiced complaints following her presentations last week, that she had been too vague and evasive, a trait that did not do her much of a favour for candidacy for President of the European Commission. The consequence was that both the Green and the leftist GUE/NGL faction have announced that they will reject von der Leyen’s nomination for the Commission’s top job.

The European Parliament’s confirmation of her nomination is way more than a purely technical matter and there is serious doubt whether von der Leyen will be able to poll the necessary 376 votes, the absolute majority of the MEPs, during the secret election on the evening of the 16th. On the morning of the same day, von der Leyen will have one last chance to convince MEPs to rally behind her, outlining her vision and plan for the next five years in a plenary session.

Sharp criticism has left no doubt that her own party would be more than happy to see her go to Brussels, opening up a key slot in the Merkel cabinet and providing her with a backdoor career, preventing the unbeloved and unlucky politician from sinking into political quicksand in the national context. The question of what would happen if von der Leyen falls short remains largely unanswered. It is certain, however, that the rejection of her nomination, most certainly with the help of 16 German SPD-MEPs, would inflame the tensions that have cast a shadow over the German governing coalition ever since the 2017 election.

[1] Von der Leyen announced her resignation as minister of defense for the day after the vote on her nomination in the European Parliament regardless of the result

The author is Merle Huber, an intern in the European Policy Centre – CEP.