Ursula von der Leyen looks every inch the modern European stateswoman. Her tailored trouser suits, no-fuss hair and assured speeches: what’s not to like?
When she was put forward by the European Council for President of the European Commission, her fellow Germans knew precisely what to expect. A poll found that only a third said she would be good at the job. Martin Schulz, a former president of the European parliament, did not mince his words. ‘Von der Leyen is our weakest minister,’ he said. ‘That is apparently good enough to head the European Commission.’ Having served as the deputy leader of Angela Merkel’s CDU party from 2010, she consistently achieved the lowest re-election results in the role’s history.
Merkel had found a loyal protégé in von der Leyen. She’d given her a hand up out of regional politics in Lower Saxony and onto the federal stage. Under Mutti Merkel’s protection, von der Leyen retained her place in the cabinet longer than any other politician, despite various political scandals. She is perhaps best known for her reforms of the German military, an exercise in dubious procurement contracts that saw consultancy firms paid millions of euros while overpriced equipment failed to materialise.
Just a few months before she quit as defence minister in 2019, US officials found that German forces had been using mobile phones during a Nato exercise because of a lack of encrypted radio equipment. Meanwhile, the Bundeswehr was forced to scrap its standard issue assault rifles when it was discovered that they didn’t shoot straight in temperatures above 30°C. At one stage, German soldiers were performing military exercises with broomsticks rather than guns.
Von der Leyen hails from the closest thing the European Union has to an aristocracy. Her father, Ernst Albrecht, was the CDU’s minister president of Lower Saxony as well as one of the EU’s first civil servants. His young daughter seemed unsure of what she wanted from her future. She studied at four different universities, switching between archaeology, economics and medicine.
In 1978 she enrolled at the London School of Economics, living under the pseudonym Rose Ladson and the protection of Scotland Yard. Her father — who nearly became chancellor after receiving the backing of the future German leader Helmut Kohl — had been told that the Red Army Faction was planning to kidnap his then 19-year-old daughter. Reminiscing about her time in London, she said: ‘I lived much more than I studied.’
Her wild years seemed to have come to an end when she was awarded a medical doctorate in Hanover in 1991. However, a scandal erupted in 2015 when it was alleged that nearly half the pages of her dissertation contained plagiarised material.
She reached her political nadir in 2018 when even Merkel was ready to drop her erstwhile ally as the CDU’s defence policy came under ever more intense scrutiny. But there was a lifeline from Brussels. Tellingly, von der Leyen announced her resignation as defence minister before her appointment as President of the European Commission was confirmed. The fact that Merkel abstained from voting on her nomination shows just how toxic her former deputy had become.
Some in Brussels suspect that Emmanuel Macron wanted a weak candidate so he could mould her — and the Continent — in his own image. This may explain it. The EU leaders wanted someone who looked plausible but was ineffective at running a European Commission that they did not want to become too powerful. By that measure, she was the perfect candidate. Perhaps now, as the Commission fails to deal with the pandemic, it will regret its decision, looking at the trail of mayhem she has left in her wake. And it seems that she has not finished yet.