When Angela Merkel stepped down as chancellor of Germany after some 16 years, many observers said her shoes would be extremely hard to fill. Who next could provide the steady hand she did to become the “leader” of Europe in the public mind?
Emmanuel Macron of France? He doesn’t seem to engender the confidence needed even within his home country.
Turns out it would be another woman and another German: Ursula von der Leyen, elected President of the European Commission in 2019, whom Time magazine – a publication prone to bestowing titles – just named “Europe’s most powerful woman”, though Christine Lagarde, head of the European Central Bank, could have some claim to the honour.
Faced with climate change, a global pandemic and armed conflict in Ukraine, how has von der Leyen coped and risen to the challenges?
The Time story recounts how she often lives at her office, sleeping in a 25sqm room right by her desk. She has to leave, of course, to meet with world leaders, visit crisis areas, or perhaps have an audience with the Pope, which she did on June 10.
And spend some time with her family: husband Heiko, a physician and member of the noble von der Leyen family, and their seven children.
Ironically, her long hours in Brussels, headquarters of the European Union, take her back to where she was born in 1958. Her father worked for the organization that would become the EU so she spent her childhood in the Belgian capital, where she was already immersed in an international environment at the exclusive European School.
In 1971, the family, also of seven children, moved to a divided Germany where her father was elected a state representative in the ruling Christian Democratic Union political party. She told Time magazine that growing up as the third of seven children taught her to balance competing interests. “What I learned from early on is that I’m doing best if the group is fine,” she said. “I’m a deep believer in constant negotiation.”
Those skills are certainly a prerequisite to any leadership position in the fractious EU. And von der Leyen has a massively challenging position as head of a cabinet of commissioners that reports to the European Parliament. She is empowered to allocate portfolios, and reshuffle or dismiss commissioners that together set the policy agenda and determine legislative proposals. The commission is the only body that can propose bills to become EU law.
In addition to the pandemic, climate change and the Ukraine conflict, von der Leyen routinely faces a range of more “usual” challenges in the complex EU, though if an issue is on her desk, it is not likely inconsequential.
Last week saw unprecedented open dissent from senior members of her cabinet who opposed her decision to unlock EU pandemic recovery funding for Poland. They are concerned that she is letting Poland off the hook when it comes to maintaining the rule of law, an EU backbone issue that has always been fraught with difficulty.
Another annoying glitch that required her patience and negotiating skills was the European Parliament’s rejection last week of the final Digital Services Act (DSA), a landmark piece of legislation that aims to help rein in Big Tech. Expected to sail through its final vote, the new law was held back because parliament members said France, which currently holds the six-month rotating EU presidency, made unauthorized alterations to the legislation’s text.
As leader of the administration that tries to express the liberal values of Europe while also getting real things done on the ground, the challenges are all in a day’s work.
Susi Dennison, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, notes von der Leyen’s “ability to be a kind of fixer-leader in terms of brokering solutions and finding a consensus between member states”.
Perhaps her ability to embrace diversity was aided by her days at the London School of Economics, which she attended under an assumed name due to kidnapping fears related to her father’s stature and political positions.
There she dyed her hair and became a devotee of punk rock. She adopted the name Rose Ladson and “lived far more than I studied”, she told German newspaper Die Zeit in 2016. Her days in swinging London gave her “an inner freedom” that she still treasures, she told Time magazine.
But she was hardly rebellious for long. Perhaps liberal in outlook, her life became the very expression of conservative values, meeting her husband in the church choir and herself becoming a physician while giving birth to and raising seven children. The von der Leyens also lived for a time in California.
The cosmopolitan multi-lingual background seems tailor made to help forge a successful international leader. Hard-working, highly educated, religious and liberal minded from a heritage of achievement and success, von der Leyen has an impressive range of achievements and characteristics.
In these severely challenging times of disease, climate change and conflict, she has managed to burnish her reputation rather than diminish it. Power might not be the right word: perhaps von der Leyen is the most crucial person in Europe right now.
As a mother of seven and an adventurous spirit in post-WWII Europe, somehow it is comforting to know she will lead the important work ahead.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy
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