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Ursula Von der Leyen: a portrait (part I)

Everything seemed to be clear. In the run-up to the European elections 2019, both the European Parliament (EP) and the Commission agreed that the lead-candidate of the winning party should after the election also be elected as the new President of the Commission. But as it happens so often, things looked different as soon as the election results were there.

While the European People’s Party (EPP) with their Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber became the strongest party, only the European Council has the right to propose a candidate for a vote of confirmation in the EP. After some negotiations the heads of the European governments found themselves unable to find a qualified majority for any of the proposed candidates, raising doubts about the usefulness of lead-candidates in the first place and anger among members of parliament. However, they ultimately agreed on a candidate that came as unexpected to many: Ursula Gertrud Von der Leyen.

Because of her rather rapid entrance on the international stage I would like to review her background to allow you to get a better idea of what to expect from her as the new President of the European Commission. This portrait is split into two parts: this first one, focussing on her political career so far, and a second one discussing what to expect from her as President of the Commission.

Born this way

Born in 1958 and raised in Brussels as the daughter of one of the first European civil servants, Von der Leyen was able to portray herself as a European rather than German candidate. Back in July when she presented herself before the European Parliament, she held her speech in German, English and French. Although ultimately unnecessary due to simultaneous translation in the Parliament, this move underlined her efforts to address the fear of a Europe dominated by German interests. In the speech outlining her policy goals Von der Leyen also revealed another thing about herself: she is an ambitious person in every aspect of life. Before entering politics, she studied medicine in the UK as well as in the US and ultimately obtained a doctoral degree. She entered politics and became a member of the christian-democrat party CDU (Christlich Demokratische Union) in 1990.

Although she became active in local politics relatively late in 2001 at the age of 43, Von der Leyen started to climb the ranks soon after. In 2003 she was named as Minister for Social Affairs in the state of Lower Saxony and later got herself elected into the national board of the CDU. Finally, in 2005 Angela Merkel appointed her as Federal Minister of Family Affairs and Youth in her first cabinet. A peculiarity of the German election system is that Von der Leyen never won the direct mandate for the Bundestag in her district. Since one half of the seats are elected through party lists, she still made it into the Parliament. (It is not unusual that party elites run as both direct and party list candidates to make sure that they will get elected.) ​​

From 2005 onwards, she became a steady member of the German government. One month into the second Merkel cabinet again as Minister for Family Affairs, she succeeded the Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs who had resigned. In the third Merkel cabinet starting in 2013 Von der Leyen took on her last and arguably toughest challenge as a federal minister: the Ministry of Defense.

It might not be that surprising anymore that she held all these offices while also raising seven children together with her husband, who is a physician and an entrepreneur. Taking all this into account, even the toughest critics of hers have to admit that Ursula Von der Leyen most certainly knows how to manage stressful situations. And the number of those critics has risen throughout the last couple of years. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and start with some noteworthy legislation that she supported and see what it might tell us about her view of the world.

Entering the national stage

As Minister of Family Affairs and Youth, Von der Leyen controlled a policy area which had traditionally been a point of disagreement between the CDU and their “sister-party” CSU (Christlich-Soziale Union). Both parties formed a political union on the federal level back in 1949, leaving the state of Bavaria in the hands of the CSU to avoid internal conservative competition. Generally, the CSU adopts more conservative-traditional positions than the CDU. It is therefore no surprise that some of the harshest critics of Von der Leyen’s rather progressive family policies were members of her own party. In contrast to the “traditional” idea of a family, she pushed forward policies that would make life easier for families in which both parents are working. As an example, she favoured investments into childcare over financial support for one parent staying at home. In 2017 she voted in favour of the Ehe für Alle (Marriage for Everybody), which granted homosexual married couples the same legal status as heterosexual ones. It is noteworthy here that only around 25% of the other CDU/CSU MPs did so.

While these policies were favoured by a majority of the population, others were not. When Von der Leyen tried to force internet providers to block websites containing child pornography in 2009, she faced strong criticism for the way she was trying to implement this. As an example, before any legislation had been agreed on, she already pushed internet providers into secret agreements with the state. Most critics saw these blockades as very unlikely to be successful, and therefore unfitting to justify state-controlled “censorship”. As in previous debates, Von der Leyen was also criticised for her aggressive way of promoting her policies. While she had hired public relations agencies paid with public funds on previous occasions, this time she went as far as displaying child pornography websites on a press conference to underline the need for her proposed legislation.

The “ejection seat”

In December 2013 she took over the Ministry of Defense, a position that previously had been labelled an “ejection seat” in the press. The chronically underfunded Bundeswehr has had a hard time living up to its international responsibilities, while also struggling with declining numbers of new recruits. As if this wasn’t enough, Von der Leyen was also the first woman in this position and had not served in the military. It was expected that the military leadership would examine her actions critically. And they did, partly due to the fact that Von der Leyen had not been reluctant to publicly criticise the army during several debates that occurred over the years. However, the biggest challenge she was to face was to be self-made.

Under her administration, the funding of the Bundeswehr rose significantly, and new equipment was to be purchased on a large scale. To break up long-standing military-industrial ties, Von der Leyen aimed to reform the administrative structure of the army with the help of external experts and consultants. However, her ambitions might have taken her too far on this.

In 2018 the Bundesrechnungshof, a federal institution that audits public expenditure, found several violations of guidelines in the contracts awarded by the Ministry of Defense to several big consulting companies. In her strive to make the administration more efficient, Von der Leyen installed former consultants in key positions at the Ministry. As it turned out, several contracts, some of which were worth millions, were awarded to consultancies without any real competition. Some of the senior staff installed by Von der Leyen had also previously worked for these companies or, as it was later uncovered, had personal ties to their consultants.

A parliamentary inquiry was installed in early 2019. However, members of this inquiry have regularly stated their frustration with the uncooperative behaviour of many key figures at the Ministry. Von der Leyen herself has so far not been accused of any misdeeds in a legal sense, but she has been heavily criticised for having ignored previous warnings and for turning a blind eye to the practices that were established at her Ministry.

While she came forward quite early on and partly took responsibility for this, her critics saw this as a move to avoid the launch of the parliamentary inquiry. And the scandal is not likely to die down anytime soon: just last December it became public that the data on her official mobile phones had been irrevocably deleted in August, even though a member of the parliamentary inquiry had requested access into her communication almost two months earlier. As things stand, she is, in her new role as President of the European Commission, expected to testify in person before the inquiry committee. Given the degree of professionalism that she has displayed throughout her career, it is unlikely, though, that her answers will provide new or potentially incriminating facts.

Now that we had a look at Ursula Von der Leyens political career so far, we have a solid foundation to speculate about what to expect from her presidency in the next five years. This will be the topic of the second part of this portrait. Until then, thank you for reading.

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