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Von der Leyen's Berlin skills transfer to Brussels

Maximiliane Koschyk Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Maximiliane Koschyk
July 3, 2019

The EU is a game with three summits and, in the end, a German wins? In this case, yes. But Ursula von der Leyen's years in Berlin will prove ideal preparation for the European Commission, says DW's Maximiliane Koschyk.

Ursula von der Leyen surrounded by microphones
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J.-F. Badias

The shattering of glass, some shards, perhaps a cut or two: In reality, seeing a woman break through a glass ceiling is not a pretty sight. A day after Ursula von der Leyen was nominated as the first woman to head the European Commission all that's left is a pile broken glass and lots of scratches.

She was forced through as a compromise, despite criticism about whether she could even do the job. The situation wasn't very different in Germany after Angela Merkel's 2005 election victory. On that evening, an angry Gerhard Schröder — soon to be a former chancellor — urged German TV viewers to please "get their heads out of the clouds" and ditch the idea of Merkel taking his place. Such a move was out the question, according to Schröder, who argued that he, obviously, should lead the government despite finishing second. The rest, of course, is history.

Nominate a woman as president of the European Commission, a German who was not a top candidate in the European elections? Impossible, undemocratic, unlikely to pass the European Parliament — and yet seemingly a done deal. Ultimately, von der Leyen was the common denominator acceptable to all of Europe's leaders.

Read more:   Opinion: In the end, it was a backroom deal

What works in Berlin works in Brussels

It is the EU's core business to be pragmatic, a mediator between extremes. In all-night negotiations, no one glides as unerringly over the polished floors of the European Council's Europa building as Chancellor Angela Merkel. And what works in Berlin often works in Brussels, too. Nobody in Europe would dare equate Germany with the EU, even if the similarities are intriguing. First, there's a political landscape that is broadly liberal-conservative and Green in the west, but with euroskeptic nationalists in the ascendancy in the east. Then, there's a parliament in which mainstream parties are growing weaker while right-wing populists, Greens and centrist alternatives are making gains, leading to more pluralistic debates.

Maximiliane Koschyk
DW's Maximiliane Koschyk Image: DW

Both Berlin and Brussels are divided over how to manage migration, the climate crisis and the growing tensions between China and the United States. Postwar Germany has a pacifist tradition, but it's moderated by a realistic sense of Russia's intensifying aggression in Eastern Europe. NATO is holding similar debates in Brussels.

Read more:  Who is Ursula von der Leyen, the surprise compromise as European Commission president?

Longest-serving member of Merkel's Cabinets

There is not a single important topic in Brussels that has not already been discussed in a similar manner in Merkel's Cabinet. Ursula von der Leyen is the only one who has been there from the start. After 14 years of heading different ministries, her most recent portfolio was defense — a post typically regarded as a revolving door in German politics. Yet von der Leyen demonstrated her staying power and flexibility, she fought the Bundeswehr brass over the tradition and political attitude of an army in democratic Germany. She played both sides of the mind games with the US over the NATO budget, while at the same time meeting Chinese military leaders and showing up at security policy summits the world over.

Only a staunch European with visions underpinned by democratic principles can manage all that. Only a woman trained in the sciences but shaped by her Christian faith and human history, who has learned to leave row after row of men in staid dark gray suits in her wake with a mixture of patience, pragmatism and negotiating guile. A woman, in short, who is notably similar to Angela Merkel in many ways. 

Merkel chose Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to be her successor in Berlin, so Brussels is a logical progression for von der Leyen. This is where she can step out of Merkel's shadow, where the student can become the master. She learned everything she needed to know from Angela Merkel, including the following: When the glass ceiling cracks and you're standing, grazed, in front of the shards of shattered glass, there's only one thing to do and that is sweep it up and put a bandage on your wounds. Take a deep breath. And then carry on. The air is always thin at altitude, Brussels is no exception.