Katja Hoyer Katja Hoyer

Failing upwards: the story of Ursula von der Leyen

[Getty Images]

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.

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