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Leaders Revealed by Covid-19: Ursula von der Leyen, or the Reaffirmation of a European Ambition

Analyses - 10 September 2020

Elegant, reserved, small in stature, more hardworking than brilliant, multi-lingual, but lacking exceptional charisma, Ursula von der Leyen does not resemble the classic image of a political "iron lady," like Margaret Thatcher, or even that of a more maternal figure, like Angela Merkel.

In her already lengthy career, the strengths of the President of the European Commission have also often been perceived as weaknesses: as the daughter of a titan of German politics, educated in both Brussels and the United Kingdom, a medical doctor by training, promoted within the CDU by Merkel herself, von der Leyen has led a privileged life. The apparent ease with which she has entered key positions partly explains the failure - relatively, of course - of her political career in Germany. Once considered the most likely successor to the Chancellor, she fell from grace because of her failure in the role of Minister of Defence, a portfolio that is certainly very risky for any politician in the Federal Republic.

She was dropped into Brussels somewhat by chance, and against the wishes of her own party, because of President Macron’s refusal to ratify the nomination of Manfred Weber of the EPP (European People’s Party) – the "Spitzenkandidat" – as a future President of the European Commission. Another center-right German, like Weber, was needed, but one who would better suit France’s political orientation; the Franco-German compromise settled on von der Leyen, who in her duties as Defense Minister demonstrated an openness with respect to the views of Paris. Her arrival in Brussels in the midst of this situation was challenging; she only narrowly won the nomination of the European Parliament after having worked so hard on forming the College of Commissioners. Her ability to stamp her authority on the Brussels bubble was immediately called into question.

Yet Ursula von der Leyen has certainly been able to put herself at the forefront of the "European recovery" that is necessitated by the coronavirus crisis. Up against this hurdle, she seemed well aware of the EU’s mistakes and determined to set out a new path for Europe with the recovery plan. Will her personality become more assertive? The issue is important at a time when the Commission – after the admittedly much better years – has regained a strategic role in the European project. Hence the importance of this detailed political portrait of the President of the Commission, so tested by the Covid-19 crisis, written by Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano, the Head of our Europe Program.


Michel Duclos, Special geopolitics advisor, Editor in Chief of this series

"For some time, we’ve been looking into the abyss...." Interviewed by the German Press Agency DPA on March 28, 2020, the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, acknowledged how the coronavirus pandemic had put the European Union in a critical situation. As Europe became the pandemic’s epicenter, the closure of national borders and the uncoordinated strategies of European states to contain the spread of the virus meant that European institutions were relegated to the status of helpless onlookers.

For a period of time, and for the first time in its recent history, the European Union seemed on the verge of sinking into irrelevance. This was in stark contrast to the slogan adopted by the Commission a few months earlier, advocating for "a more ambitious Union." It also revealed the fragility of European integration and the inability of European decision-makers to act decisively in emergency situations.

Aware of her weaknesses and the mistakes she made in handling the crisis, while also alert to that specific moment in Europe, von der Leyen was able to transform the crisis into giving the European project a new dimension by developing a groundbreaking recovery plan and asserting new European powers. As she stated in her interview with the German Press Agency: "The crisis represents a great opportunity for Europe to reinvent itself."

A German and a woman

In a survey published in France at the beginning of March, 67% of the French population said they did not know – even when provided with her name – Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President, although Forbes magazine had named her the fourth most powerful woman in the world in 2019. The first woman – and the first German since Walter Hallstein in 1958 – to serve as the President of the European Commission, von der Leyen is the perfect embodiment of the invisible power of Europe.

Before coming onto the European scene, she was a leading political figure in Germany. The only minister to serve continuously in Angela Merkel’s cabinet since she became Chancellor, Ursula von der Leyen was long considered the leading contender to succeed her in the Chancellery. As such, journalists Ulrike Demmer and Daniel Goffart entitled their biography of von der Leyen "The Reserve Chancellor," a book that reveals the atypical career of a woman who came into politics late and was able to modernize her party, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU). 

The daughter of Ernst Albrecht, a former Minister-President of Lower Saxony, she was sent to London to live in hiding in the late 1970s by her father, who feared she would become a target of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a far-left militant organization responsible for several terrorist attacks during the "Years of Lead." Returning to Hannover, she studied medicine and went to live with her husband in California for four years, staying home to raise their seven children, before entering politics, at the local level, in the late 1990s.

The first woman – and the first German since Walter Hallstein in 1958 – to serve as the President of the European Commission, von der Leyen is the perfect embodiment of the invisible power of Europe.

When Merkel became Chancellor in 2005, von der Leyen was appointed Minister of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, and helped change the role of women in Germany, significantly increasing the number of nurseries so that German women could have children and continue working. For German conservatives, this was a revolution. Appointed Minister of Labor and Social Affairs in 2009, she advocated for the introduction of a minimum wage and quotas for women on boards of directors. Thus, for the only time in her political career, she opposed her mentor, Merkel, to whom she remains the most loyal of allies. Von der Leyen has established herself as the CDU’s social conscience, driving the party’s modernization and repositioning towards the center, as desired by Merkel.

"Europe must learn to speak the language of power"

The appointment of von der Leyen as Defense Minister in 2013 marked the final stage of her political ascension in Germany. Faced with deeply anti-militarist public opinion and the dramatically poor state of Germany’s army equipment, von der Leyen had to navigate several scandals during this period that, without directly undermining her, permanently tarnished her reputation.

Nevertheless, it was as Defense Minister that she first outlined her European ambitions. In a speech at the opening of the Munich Security Conference 2015, von der Leyen put forward the concept of "Leading from the Center," calling on Germany to take on more responsibility internationally, particularly in regard to the resolution of armed conflicts. This new direction on the part of Germany’s foreign policy directly related to a book published the same year by one of her own advisers. An influential political scientist, Herfried Munkler, argued in the book, Power in the Center: Germany’s New Tasks in Europe, for Germany to increase its involvement at the European level by asserting genuine German leadership, which would allow Europe to stay united and further its influence on the international stage. It is not by chance that, five years later, von der Leyen should be cast in a key role of this new leadership in relation to the continent.

Determined to make Europe a genuine power, she has focused on making the new Commission she chairs the first "Geopolitical Commission" and has repeatedly said since taking office that "Europe must learn to speak the language of power." Two events during the Covid-19 crisis have shown actions far exceeding this simple slogan.

  • On March 3, 2020, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan exerted pressure on Greece by threatening to let a flood of refugees into Europe, von der Leyen traveled to the Turkey-Greece border with the President of the Council, Charles Michel, and the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, thus asserting the determination of a united European Union to Ankara.

Determined to make Europe a genuine power, she has focused on making the new Commission she chairs the first "Geopolitical Commission" and has repeatedly said since taking office that "Europe must learn to speak the language of power." 

  • Held via video conference on June 22, 2020, the EU-China summit enabled von der Leyen and Charles Michel to reaffirm Europe’s founding values through openly opposing the Chinese leadership with unusually strong criticism. Expected to be somewhat of a non-event, the summit represented an unprecedented turning point, reaffirming that Europe’s attitude towards China had become less naïve and more assertive. 

A much-needed European revival

This assertion of "European power" is in direct contrast with von der Leyen’s marginalization in the management of the health crisis. Lacking expertise on health issues and overwhelmed by the national responses from the member state, the European Commission was conspicuously absent from initial efforts to manage the crisis. This represented a structural weakness, along with a belated acknowledgment of how serious the situation really was. At a press conference held on March 9, 2020 marking the first hundred days of her Commission, von der Leyen didn’t speak a single word to the health crisis that was ravaging the continent. Openly acknowledging her initial blunder, she would go on, at the start of April, to formally apologize to Italians for not being by their side at the beginning of the epidemic. 

Von der Leyen has also been the subject of much criticism from the Brussels bubble, which has never forgiven her for her appointment – which defied the Spitzenkandidat system – or for ousting one of the most influential members of the European technostructure (former Secretary-General of the Commission, Martin Selmayr). Some observers have even deemed her "the weakest President in history" who is "completely insulated" and "incapable of taking action." Yet, from the very beginning of the pandemic, von der Leyen managed to lift the constraints placed on member states, thereby restoring their ability to act. While the temporary suspension of budgetary rules in relation to state aid now appears to be essential for the survival of the European project, von der Leyen demonstrated her discreet style of leadership by presenting a proposal for recovery.

It is now up to von der Leyen to use the power she holds to bring Europe into the future and assert a new European ambition that does not simply reduce European action to managing the crises of the past. 

After a disastrous phase focusing on "coronabonds," which she herself described in the German press as "just a slogan," the joint proposal of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to create a €500 billion recovery fund for the regions and sectors most affected by the crisis gave Ursula von der Leyen a chance to show her mettle and her political acumen. While the so-called "frugal four" (Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden) opposed this project and made a counterproposal comprised entirely of loans, von der Leyen drew up a stimulus package referred to as "#NextGenerationEU."

Made up of €500 billion in subsidies and €250 billion in loans, her proposal has direct backing from the European Union’s multi-annual budget, based on the latter’s current and hitherto unseen debt sustainability. She has relied on the existing Franco-German agreement, while at the same time exceeding it.

At the core of the stimulus package is the Green Deal, digitalization of the European economy and a desire for aid to be made conditional on member states’ respect for EU laws. These steps closely align with the priorities von der Leyen set when she was elected. Thanks to an effective distribution of roles between herself and European Council President Charles Michel, an amended version of the "#NextGenerationEU" stimulus package was finally adopted at a historic European Council this past July. This "European moment" represents a major turning point for the region, which gives the European Commission and its President unprecedented capacity for action. When Angela Merkel exits the political stage, it is likely that Ursula von der Leyen will succeed her as the most powerful woman in the world. 

It is now up to von der Leyen to use the power she holds to bring Europe into the future and assert a new European ambition that does not simply reduce European action to managing the crises of the past. As she envisioned at the beginning of the epidemic, Europe now has a unique opportunity to reinvent itself.

Illustration : David MARTIN for lnstitut Montaigne


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