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What You Need to Know About Ursula Von Der Leyen, the EU’s First Woman President

The German defense minister faces a divided Europe and a fragmented parliament.

by David Gilbert
Jul 17 2019, 11:08am

The European Parliament just elected its first woman EU Commission President, and her first job will be to unite a divided Europe.

Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, who will replace Jean Claude Juncker on November 1, won by just nine votes when European lawmakers held a secret ballot on Tuesday evening.

Responding to the narrow margin of victory, the German defense minister said: “A majority is a majority in politics.”

But there was significant opposition to her last-minute candidacy and the 60-year-old knows she will need to address those divisions if she is to get her progressive policies past the parliament.

“There was a great deal of resentment,” she said. “[But] the confidence you placed in me is the confidence you placed in Europe. The task ahead humbles me. My work starts now. Let us work together constructively.”

Von der Leyen was proposed by Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron as a compromise candidate, and as part of a package of candidates for Europe’s top jobs.

The decision to put her forward undermined those within the European Parliament who campaigned for the role of president. As a result, many lawmakers voted against von der Leyen out of principle, including some German MEPs.

Who is Ursula von der Leyen?

Von der Leyen is no stranger to Brussels, having spent the first 13 years of her life at the heart of Europe, where her father, Ernst Albrecht was among the first pan-European civil servants.

Albrecht became a leading figure in Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party was informed that his family was in danger from the Red Army Faction, a terrorist group also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang.

In response, von der Leyen moved to London under an assumed name in 1978, a move she said changed her outlook forever. “I lived much more than I studied,” she told the weekly German newspaper Zeit. “I immersed myself for one year in this seething, international, colorful city. For me, coming from the rather monotonous, white Germany, that was fascinating.”

After qualifying as a gynecologist, von der Leyen joined the CDU in 1990, on the same day her father retired. She held regional and national positions within the party, before graduating to cabinet roles in the work and family ministries, and most recently in the defense ministry.

She has often been seen as a divisive character within German politics: her critics claim she is more interested in headline-grabbing interviews than in doing her job.

But she seems to be leaving German politics at an opportune time. She is currently the least popular minister in Merkel’s cabinet, after criticizing the German military as having an “attitude problem.”

What challenges does she face?

Von der Leyen will lead the EU Commission and its 32,000 staff, which drafts EU laws, enforces EU rules and has the power to impose fines on member states if necessary.

She will take control of a much-changed European Parliament. While the elections in May did not usher in the populist wave many had predicted, some 25 percent of the parliament is still made up of Euro-skeptic lawmakers, while the traditional left and right power blocs have fragmented.

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While von der Leyen has traditionally been seen as a center-right politician, her campaign promises included policies clearly designed to attract all sides of the political spectrum, including a $1.1 trillion “green deal,” a carbon tax, a minimum wage, an unemployment-benefit scheme, mechanisms to bolster the rule of law, and a stronger border force.

As for the EU’s relationship with Washington, von der Leyen has voiced concerns about President Donald Trump’s leadership approach.

She has called Trump’s discussions of NATO “immature,” questioned why he wants to be a “best buddy” with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and even claimed he is uncomfortable with strong female leaders.

What’s the reaction in Europe?

Among the first to offer von der Leyen their congratulations was her mentor Merkel, who praised von der Leyen as a “committed and convincing European” who would “tackle with great vigor the challenges facing us as the European Union.”

Her predecessor Juncker said, “This job is a huge responsibility and a challenge. I am sure you will make a great president.” Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, predicted von der Leyen “will be a passionate fighter for Europe's unity.”

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However, there were many who criticized the appointment, most notably the Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, who said von der Leyen's vision for Europe would centralize power to the point where national parliaments would no longer matter, describing it as an “outright attack on the concept of the democratic nation-state.”

Farage added that von der Leyen’s appointment would increase the U.K.’s distrust of Europe and create stronger ties with Washington. “It probably, after Brexit, drives us much closer towards America and further away from Europe, I think.”

Cover: Germany's Ursula von der Leyen delivers her speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, Tuesday July 16, 2019. Ursula von der Leyen outlined her vision and plans as Commission President. The vote, held by secret paper ballot, will take place later today. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

Ursula von der Leyen
EU parliament