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Back to Brussels: Who is Ursula von der Leyen?

July 16, 2019

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a member of Merkel's conservatives, has been confirmed president of the EU Commission. But just who is she? DW profiles the Brussels-born doctor and her time in Berlin.

Ursula von der Leyen in front of the EU flag
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Seco

She was born in a Brussels suburb a little more than 60 years ago. Now the pursuit of her political career has led her back to the Belgian and European capital. After the EU's heads of state and government failed to unite around one of the candidates from May's EU elections, they came up with the name of German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen for the top EU job.

The Christian Democrat (CDU), who was introduced to the Berlin political stage by Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2005 — and who was once briefly treated as a potential successor to Merkel — has been confirmed head of the European Commission, making her the Commission's first ever female chief.

European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker
Von der Leyen will take over the EU executive reigns from Jean-Claude Juncker Image: Reuters/G. Van Der Hasselt

Read more:  What are the top EU jobs and who decides on them?

A good command of languages

Von der Leyen spent the first 13 years of her life in Brussels. Her father, Ernst Albrecht, who later became state premier in Lower Saxony, was a high-level official at the EEC and EC, the EU's predecessor institutions. In contrast to many of her colleagues in the German government, von der Leyen speaks English and French fluently and has always acted with self-confidence on the international stage.

An image from the CDU/CSU campaign for the European elections in May. Von der Leyen is on the right of the image, which also includes former lead candidate Manfred Weber.
Von der Leyen and some of her party colleagues taking part in the European election campaignImage: Getty Images/A. Koerner

Von der Leyen held a variety of ministerial posts in several Merkel-led governments. Invariably, she would tackle her new task with great dedication, calling existing structures into question and eventually stirring them up. Occasionally, her determination even produced irritation among her parliamentary party colleagues.

Ministerial posts

Initially, the mother of seven held the post of family minister, between 2005 and 2009. With her sometimes unconventional style, she sent clear signals to the political establishment in Berlin. She initiated, for example, a parental assistance program ("Elterngeld") and oversaw a nationwide expansion of childcare by providing substantial financial support from the German government.

March 2008: Ursula von der Leyen and a variety of other German politicians pose in boxing gloves at the launch of a campaign against domestic violence.
As family minister, von der Leyen showed a degree of innovation, for instance in this photo shoot seeking to combat violence against womenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pilick

In 2009, then serving in Merkel's second Cabinet, von der Leyen, a trained physician, became health minister. Four years later, in December 2013, she switched to the Ministry of Defense. She remained in charge of the latter ministry even after the complicated government formation process in the wake of the 2017 federal elections. Hardly any of her 17 predecessors, all of them men, managed to hold on to the post for six years.

Prior to taking over at the Defense Ministry (long considered a graveyard for promising German political careers), the ambitious von der Leyen had a nearly flawless career. She has mostly been loyal to Chancellor Merkel, who counts on her as a solid pillar in her Cabinet.

Mover and shaker

As defense minister, von der Leyen quickly tackled the armed forces' problems one by one. The Bundeswehr was, and still is, afflicted by outdated and defective equipment, ill-conceived arms projects and a severe shortage of experts. By applying a lot of political pressure and by speaking out in public on behalf of the Bundeswehr she achieved an increase in the defense budget — albeit still well short of NATO's spending targets. And under the catchphrase "personnel turnaround," the first female German defense minister stopped the downsizing of the armed forces, bolstering troop numbers for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

She scrapped Germany's fixed cap of 185,000 troops. Under von der Leyen's tenure, defense policy became a recognizable element of Germany's foreign policy. This was also in line with international efforts to fight the "Islamic State" terror militia, which has seen contributions by the German armed forces in several spheres.

'Maneuver not aimed at anyone'

"We'd left behind a period during which the Bundeswehr had been downsized for a long time," von der Leyen said in 2017. "The security situation has changed to the effect that the Bundeswehr has to deal with a vast number of challenges, ranging from Syria and Iraq to Mali and the entire mission in the Mediterranean Sea. In addition, the troops have to cope with refugee relief and protection of the eastern border. At the same time, the Bundeswehr and I managed, in a concerted effort, to 'turn the tanker around,' as it were — there were turnarounds in the areas of equipment, personnel, and finances." 

Von der Leyen announced shortly before her confirmation as president of the EU Commission that she would step down as German defense minister, regardless of the result in the July 16 vote.

Slip-ups and scandals

Von der Leyen's reputation as the woman who gets things done has suffered in recent years. This is due to a number of personnel decisions, but also to a number of scandals. During her tenure, too, major arms projects were delayed, and simultaneously right-wing extremist activities in the armed forces and humiliating practices affecting new recruits came to light. Von der Leyen explicitly distanced herself from the armed forces — more so than her predecessors might have dared.

Germany's naval training vessel "Gorch Fock" in drydock during extensive renovations that are over budget and behind schedule.
Costs for the "Gorch Fock" restoration have skyrocketedImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Assanimoghaddam

Claiming that the Bundeswehr was affected by an "attitude problem" hurt her image among the troops. More recently, she was floundering over the question whether the naval training ship "Gorch Fock" still has a future despite skyrocketing cost overruns in restoration work. And gradually it has been coming to light that a deputy minister employed by von der Leyen took a number of liberties, for example hiring a small army of expensive advisers at her own discretion. An investigative committee in Germany's Bundestag parliament is currently dealing with the case, and von der Leyen is set to take the witness stand in a few months' time.

Read more:  Eurofighter crash leads to calls to end military exercises

More European military cooperation, more defense spending

Blemishes like these had taken some of the shine off von der Leyen's once impeccable reputation in Berlin in recent months and years. And still, longtime observers maintained ahead of the EU parliament's vote that her prospects in Brussels were good.

Von der Leyen with Manfred Weber, the man the CDU/CSU and Europe's EPP initially earmarked for the top European job
Von der Leyen with Manfred Weber, the man the CDU/CSU and Europe's EPP initially earmarked for the top European jobImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Skarzynski

In addition to local knowledge and language skills, she contributed to establishing the structure of the EU defense union. "A European army as a long-term goal and NATO are not opposites but, to me, two sides of the same coin, because it's important that the Europeans make up a strong pillar within NATO, not just in order to uphold NATO's credibility but also to have a strong European voice," she said. In response to US President Donald Trump's call for a greater military commitment of Germany and Europe, she said: "In my opinion, that's a fair demand."

Von der Leyen had shown ambition for higher office in the past. When it fell to the CDU to name a possible presidential successor after the sudden resignation of Horst Köhler in 2010, she temporarily put her own name forward. But now, her career has led her away from German politics and back to her birthplace.

Josep Borrell on Conflict Zone

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C