Polyglot Ursula von der Leyen’s nomination as European Commission chief aims to prevent the European Union from splintering, but her patchy record in Germany’s Cabinet may yet raise questions about her suitability for the EU executive post.
Von der Leyen, German defense minister since 2013 who would be the commission’s first woman chief, was picked by EU leaders as a unity candidate and part of a package to break a summit stalemate over who should run the EU’s top institutions.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who suggested von der Leyen for the post that sets the bloc’s policy agenda, praised the package after three days of negotiations that exposed the EU’s divisions and left European socialists deeply disappointed.
“This accord is the fruit of a deep Franco-German entente,” Macron told a news conference in Brussels, adding that the nominations for the EU’s top posts were “positive and consensual” and offered a fresh start for the bloc.
But her appointment still needs approval from the European Parliament, and European Council President Donald Tusk said there was a huge question mark over whether the assembly would endorse the jobs package.
Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition, rejected the package. As a result, Merkel abstained in voting — the only EU leader not to back the deal.
Born in Brussels, von der Leyen, 60, has top-notch European credentials. A fluent English and French speaker, she worked closely with Paris to promote European defense projects. But she has also had a tough time as German defense minister.
Her tenure has been marked by scandals over the awarding of contracts and right-wing extremism in the Bundeswehr, criticism about gaps in military readiness, and a crash between two German Eurofighter jets last month in which one pilot was killed.
In a fresh setback, an armed forces helicopter crashed in Germany on Monday, killing one pilot and injuring another.
Last year, a scathing internal report by Germany’s Federal Audit Office, leaked to the media, cited dozens of irregularities in hiring outside advisers in contracts worth hundreds of millions of euros in total.
In 2017, von der Leyen attacked “weak leadership” in the armed forces, provoking dismay among soldiers’ representatives, after an officer was arrested on suspicion of planning a racist attack to frame refugees.
She is a rarity in German politics in that she came to the game late, when she was 42, following a career in medicine.
Von der Leyen, who has seven children and has lived in Britain and the United States, grew up surrounded by politics. Her father, Ernst Albrecht, was a state premier for the state of Lower Saxony from 1976 to 1990.
She studied at the London School of Economics from 1977 to 1980, but used the pseudonym “Rose Ladson” due to concerns she might be targeted, as the daughter of a prominent politician, by left-wing guerrillas active in West Germany at the time.
A trained gynecologist, she was once hoisted out of a barrel on German entertainment TV by Hugh Jackman and kissed by George Clooney after handing him an award for promoting peace.
Von der Leyen was quick to take Donald Trump to task for his views on Russia after his election as US president in 2016, and said he needed to understand that NATO must be treated as an alliance of shared values rather than a business.
“Donald Trump has to say clearly on which side he is. Whether he’s on the side of the law, peace and democracy or whether he doesn’t care about all that and instead he’s looking for a best buddy [with Putin],” she said in November 2016. [Reuters]