Ursula von der Leyen is the new face of Europe, but what does this mean?
Jean Claude Juncker’s time as the President of the European Commission is over. Which means it is an end to his, depending on who you are, either hilarious or shocking greetings to other European heads of state. Often appearing lubricated, Juncker is not popular in Britain. However, how can anyone not find the time he greeted Viktor Orban not funny? Watch it here if you have not.
So, who is Ursula von der Leyen, the woman likely to replace the 64-year-old Frenchman?
First of all, let us clarify how the new candidate was chosen. Without going too far into it, the recognised system which selected Juncker in 2014, the Spitzinkandidat, was controversially ignored. Pressure from the French, Italians and the members of the Visegrád Group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) meant that the expected candidate, Manfred Weber, did not take the job.
So, instead, after days of intense talks, and alongside appointments to other positions, the European Union has put forward its new President of the Commission. Her name is Ursula von der Leyen and she is 60 years old. Not a common household name, and certainly not in the UK. So in some of her own words, what do we know about her?
Currently, she is the German Defence Minister. She is a member of the centre-right CDU and the longest-serving member of Angela Merkel’s Cabinet. Her CV includes other cabinet positions too. Having once been the Family Minister and also the Minister for Social Affairs. Her experience has left POLITICO to describe her as the highest- profile female politician in Germany besides Angela Merkel.
She is also the first woman to be nominated for the position, seen as a success across Europe. Upon announcing her appointment Donald Tusk, with levels of emotion that we have come to expect, said: ‘I am really happy about it’.
The CDU is centre-right and is certainly no party that aims to burn the world’s injustices, but compared to her colleagues VDL appears pretty liberal. Regarding gender equality, she is certainly progressive. In the past, she has demanded equal pay for women and in the face of criticism from her party, VDL discussed backing quotas for female representation on company boards. She has also addressed the need to discuss traditional masculinity, saying:
‘To me, equality is achieved when men are no longer insulted as wimps if they take care of their baby or their infirm father’.
In 2017, as Germany legalised same-sex marriages VDL sat on the liberal side of the debate on this issue too. Again, although her conservative partners criticised her, she stood by the principle that same-sex couples must be allowed to adopt with the same rights as heterosexual couples.
Unsurprisingly, VDL is pro-Europe. In fact, she is very pro Europe and demands an upscaling in the process of federalisation. ‘My aim is for a United States of Europe’ she says.
’I imagine the Europe of my children or grandchildren not as a loose union of states trapped by national interests’.
This is significant because not so long ago, at a time when Eurosceptic parties were on the rise, the EU would have resisted such an attitude. However, the tide has changed and EU leaders are not scared to place integration at the top of the menu.
With that in mind, we should mention Brexit. Like many, VDL regards Brexit as a tragedy. ‘It’s a fact that with Brexit, we all lose’. However, she is unlike some in the EU who wish for a British route back into the Union. She sits more pragmatically. ‘As much as I would like to see the Brits stay in the EU, they voted to leave’. A hard-line stance that Remainers in the UK will find difficult to swallow.
VDL has spoken in a tough tone towards China, Russia, and the USA. Regarding Russia, she has asked for a strong stance from across Europe. ‘Putin does not appreciate weakness. Currying favour or indulgence does not make him friendlier’. And in a personal cry to the American citizens, she said: ‘America is more than it’s Presidents’. In the face of all oppression, VDL is ‘convinced that the pursuit of freedom defines humanity’.
She does not take kindly to populism and as the President of the Commission we should expect her to challenge the likes of Farage, Le Pen, Salvini and Orban. Especially with controversies on the Italian border at the moment regarding Sea-Watch 3, one can predict conflict with populist leaders over immigration. In 2014, VDL housed a Syrian refugee and found him an apprenticeship in Germany. ‘He enriched our lives’, she said. Whether this was a political stunt or not, she is pro-migration in a continent with no agreed policy on how to deal with the issue.
Finally, Global Warming. The biggest and most difficult issue of our time. How does one get their own nation to commit to aggressive and complicated emissions reduction targets? Let alone, how does someone like VDL manage to bring 27 nations together to reach an agreed agenda that has the required effect? On this subject, many do not know what VDL thinks. I guess that’s synonymous for the issue as a whole. However, what is clear is she will have to formulate a strategy because the climate emergency is not going to go away.