Ursula Von Der Leyen Sets Out to Unite a Divided Europe
No, Ursula von der Leyen says, no promises were made to the governments of Poland, Hungary or Italy to secure votes from those countries’ members in the European Parliament. No special posts in her commission, no financial promises in the next multi-year budget, nothing like that. “Wishes have been formulated,” she says, straightening out her pink cardigan, “but there can only be definitive promises when the entire tableau is complete.”
It is shortly after 6 a.m. on Wednesday, and von der Leyen is sitting in the leather armchair of the “Global 500” jet belonging to the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces, and putting on her seat belt. She’s flying from Strasbourg to Berlin, where she wants to pick up her dismissal papers as German defense minister. The people traveling with her still look sleepy, but von der Leyen is in top form.
The Gorch Fock controversy, related to spiraling costs in the overhaul of a famed German naval training ship, and the scandal surrounding the allocation of lucrative contracts in the Defense Ministry to consultants — just one short flight to Berlin, and she’ll have those problems behind her. Von der Leyen seems like a woman whose career looked like it had been set to end, but for whom an unexpected window into the future has now opened.
That morning, not even 12 hours had passed since the European Parliament elected Ursula von der Leyen as the next president of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive body. It’s been less than 12 hours since she became one of the most powerful women in Europe. She will now be responsible for negotiations in the trade conflict with Donald Trump. She is at the head of an authority that can impose billions in penalties on U.S. tech giants and she must ensure that countries that are notorious for violating budget rules, like Italy, abide by the Stability and Growth Pact that governs Europe’s common currency, the euro.
A lot of things in Europe will likely depend on how von der Leyen and Angela Merkel perform under these conditions. Until her departure as defense minister, von der Leyen served as a member of Merkel’s cabinet. For a time, she was even considered as Merkel’s potential successor as chancellor. Her new role will now put her at eye level with the chancellor.
Von der Leyen is the first German to occupy the post in over 50 years. And she is taking over the top job in turbulent times. For now, the United Kingdom is still slated to leave the EU on Oct. 31. Coincidentally, von der Leyen will officially start her new position in Brussels the next day.
But the EU is also divided, as the very close result in her election showed: 383 of 747 members of parliament voted for her as their choice for the new European Commission president. That’s only nine more votes than she needed to get the job. Rarely has a commission head been elected by such a slim margin. On top of that, von der Leyen needed votes from representatives with Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) to secure her win, which raises the question of reciprocation.
Von der Leyen is promising that the EU will reboot the relationship with Eastern Europe. “We need to overcome this division,” she says.
The “Global 500” soars in a northeasterly direction. Shortly after takeoff, the flight attendant serves filter coffee and, for the outgoing minister, a small jug of warmed milk, as well as croissants and a baguette. She explains that it had been impossible to obtain any other bread this early in the morning. It is von der Leyen’s last journey with a German government aircraft.
A blue brochure, in German and English, lies in front of her. It says, “My Agenda for Europe.” In its 24 pages, she describes the kinds of policies she wants to pursue in Europe over the coming years. “This is my program,” she says, proud of what she has accomplished in about two weeks.
There are divisions in the EU between north and south, but particularly between east and west. Whether it’s on the refugee question, or the future agricultural budget — the key for solving problems often lies in Eastern Europe.
But if there is anyone in the old EU member states who can manage a reconciliation, it’s von der Leyen. As defense minister, she took a clear position against Russia, fought for higher military expenditures and made sure that the Bundeswehr had a presence in Poland and Lithuania. Now, she is trying to make use of the sympathies she earned in Eastern Europe.
She approaches the delicate issues related to some countries’ attacks on the constitutional state more quietly than her predecessor. She evades questions on her position about the pending rule of law proceedings against Poland and Hungary under Article 7 of the EU treaty, initiated in response to the countries’ efforts to undermine judicial independence and shackle independent media.
In recent days, that has also fueled great mistrust, especially in the European Parliament. The suspicion swept through the room that the candidate wanted to buy herself a majority on the right side of the center by taking a soft approach to Viktor Orbán and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The fact that Merkel had called Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and asked for the support of the PiS EU parliamentarians, didn’t remain secret for long either.
But as von der Leyen makes clear during the flight, when it comes to the constitutional state, Poland and Hungary can, in the best of cases, expect a mild tone, but not permissiveness. “It is out of the question,” she says. “The constitutional state is a fundamental principle of the EU. But in the past, many Eastern European countries have felt they been pushed too far into the corner. They felt: You just don’t want us.”
Von der Leyen wants the commission to regularly report on the state of the rule of law in each member country. “The examination of questions relating to rule of law needs to become more of a normality for us,” she says on the plane. “We are all constantly struggling to achieve that ideal.”
Many members of the European Parliament gave von der Leyen a standing ovation after the campaign speech she gave to them. The lawmakers are used to more spare rhetoric. Von der Leyen, however, made it clear with her speech where her ambitions lie. She didn’t present a collection of EU acronyms, instead saying things like, “Europe is like a long marriage. The love doesn’t grow after the first day, but it does get deeper.”
As is always the case with her, the sales pitch is right. Von der Leyen was born in Brussels and went to school there for several years. Her father, Ernst Albrecht, who later became the governor of the German state of Lower Saxony, worked for the commission. If one listens to von der Leyen, her nomination, this surprise coup by the leaders of the EU member states, seems like the only logical continuation of her career. “Brussels, this is like a homecoming for me,” she says.
A Vague Direction
Even though her speech was sprinkled with initiatives and plans, a “Green Deal” on climate protection and several pushes for greater equality for women, von der Leyen remains a blank page when it comes to European policy. Where does she want to lead the EU?
There is, for example, the question of whether the EU should move forward with the accession of new members. When she gets close to the answer, von der Leyen refers to her experience as defense minister. For 20 years, the Bundeswehr has been deployed to Kosovo, and in her job, Leyen cultivated contacts to the countries in the Western Balkans that the European Commission recently suggested could join the union starting in 2025.
But these plans have grown quiet since French President Emmanuel Macron made it clear that the accession of new countries wasn’t on his agenda. Von der Leyen, however, is in favor of making a concrete offer to countries like Albania and North Macedonia to join the EU. “We should keep our hands extended to these countries. We share the same continent, the same history, we are neighbors. If we slam the door on this region, we are only harming ourselves,” she says. “We should open negotiations for these countries to enter the EU as soon as the European Council decides that the criteria have been fulfilled.”
Angela Merkel has a similar view of the situation. The two get along, but the everyday demands of the EU might soon create stress in the relationship between the chancellor and the president of the European Commission. Merkel continues to enjoy considerable authority in Europe, but at the latest since the refugee crisis, her aura has weakened. The idea, long stubbornly pursued by Merkel, of distributing refugees in the event of a crisis across all EU member states, turned out to be a failure that cost Germany a lot of sympathy, especially in Eastern Europe.
Von der Leyen needs to deviate from Merkel’s line, which will be a delicate operation. “We need a fresh start on refugee policy,” she says. Together with current Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, who is the president-designate of the European Council, the powerful body representing EU leaders, she will soon start visiting EU capitals to canvas what is reasonable and what is doable. Once again, the key will be in Eastern Europe. “More officials for the border protection agency Frontex, more help for Africa, the distribution question — the instruments are all already on the table,” von der Leyen says. “Now we need to find majorities for them.”
That won’t be an easy task. The interests of not only the individual member states, but also the political camps, are too different. In the parliament, that could have cost von der Leyen the election by a hair. Her campaign speech became a balancing act. To get votes from the Greens and, especially, the Social Democrats, she promised a European unemployment benefit reinsurance scheme in the parliament, as well as more flexibility in terms of the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact — in other words, classic demands made by social democratic parties.
A Challenging Autumn
It was reminiscent of her earlier battle over parental benefits and daycare spots in Germany — von der Leyen’s speech was a good fit for her personally, but less of a good fit for her party. “We can’t just vacate our positions like this,” Markus Ferber, a member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs and a lawmaker in the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, complained behind closed doors. The vote was secret, so that nobody will be able to determine who didn’t want to give von der Leyen her job. But the number of dissenters in her own party was likely considerable.
Von der Leyen knows, of course, that she owes her job to the EU leaders, who surprisingly nominated her for the Commission presidency after over 50 hours of consultation. Ultimately, she was nominated unanimously (only Germany had to abstain because of the opposition of the Social Democrats). It’s a base of support she can build on.
Her slim majority in the parliament can also be traced back to a feat of strength by those EU leaders. Aside from Merkel, Pedro Sánchez from Spain and Antonio Costa of Portugal, called for members of parliament to vote for her.
As she must know herself, in the future, the challenge will be that of convincing a majority to support her plans on her own. That might already be crucial this autumn, when the parliament will intensely question von der Leyen’s commissioners during hearings. For some parliamentarians, it could be time for revenge.
If von der Leyen is worried during the flight, she doesn’t show it. Her excitement about the job seems to be drowning out any immediate concerns. It was only just recently that her job had involved grappling with unruly generals. Now, she is paying court to leaders all across Europe.
The plane descends toward Berlin’s Tegel Airport. Von der Leyen is now concerned with very practical questions.
Since the beginning of her ministerial career in Berlin almost 14 years ago, she has never had an apartment of her own in Berlin, and instead spends nights in a room in her ministry. She says she still works until late at night, and this way drivers and security personal don’t need to wait hours to accompany her to a hotel or an apartment.
Will people find a room in Berlaymont, the European Commission’s gigantic headquarters, where von der Leyen can sleep?