“I always wanted, in politics, to come home,” says Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. Home is not Lower Saxony, where her family comes from and where the gynaecologist-turned-politician launched her career. It is Brussels, where she was born and grew up, made friends and nurtured a passion for the European project. She might have imagined herself one day being a commissioner there, she tells me, but not the first woman president of the commission itself.
The 62-year-old’s appointment last year was accidental, recommended not by her native Germany but by Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who had known Von der Leyen during her stint as German defence minister. Angela Merkel, her friend and mentor, is said to have been taken aback by the suggestion, but the chancellor could not pass up the opportunity of placing a German, a woman and an ally at the helm of the commission. “Angela Merkel always told me, ‘I need you here [in Germany],’” Von der Leyen says on our videoconference call.
With her swept-back blonde hair, pearl necklace and frequent smile, Von der Leyen’s cool elegance comes across even on screen. Not one to display her feelings or ever share stories — too aloof, too perfect are common criticisms of her in German political circles — she lets out a hint of emotion when discussing her return to Brussels. “I only realised how strong this feeling of coming home was when I was here, all of a sudden, and I had all these languages around me. This diversity of the European Union, it’s so fascinating. And all these childhood memories.”
Her first year in the job was more turbulent than she could ever have anticipated. Brexit was still nagging, though no longer an existential threat to the EU. But barely three months into her five-year term, the EU project threatened to come unstuck, thanks to coronavirus. When Covid-19 became a health emergency in Europe in the early months of 2020, Von der Leyen was powerless, the commission paralysed. Rather than coming together, member states shut their borders and hoarded medical equipment. In Italy, the first European country ravaged by the pandemic, hospitals were swamped and doctors were forced to make unbearable choices over who should live and who die. The most pro-European Italians felt abandoned by their northern neighbours and questioned the merits of EU membership.
Von der Leyen had few levers to pull. The EU’s executive arm plays a supporting role to national governments on policies such as public health and internal security. New to the job, she had little experience of EU structures or of managing the conflicting demands of 27 member states. She tells me that during the first council meeting of the pandemic, leaders professed to all be in it together but, within days if not hours, they were looking decisively inwards. “One of the biggest achievements of the EU is the open single market and the Schengen principles for passport-free travel,” she says. “Border closures due to coronavirus cut these freedoms — and then nothing was functioning any more.”
Von der Leyen soldiered on. Eager to show some semblance of cohesion, she rallied international support for vaccines and set up a donor-pledging event to raise €7.5bn to improve testing, treatment and vaccine discovery efforts worldwide. Her most significant contribution, however, came two months later, through the co-ordination of a €750bn borrowing plan to bankroll the recovery in the countries hit worst economically.
Few doubt that Von der Leyen’s relationship with Merkel, with whom she is in regular touch, was instrumental to the breakthrough. Germany had long been opposed to the issuance of common debt. “Merkel made an extraordinary move. She knew what was needed to keep the union together,” Von der Leyen tells me. The July agreement was a defining achievement for the bloc. It gave the commission unprecedented fiscal muscle and was hailed in some European quarters as a Hamiltonian moment, a reference to the 1790 agreement between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson federalising the debts of different states.
The recovery fund should ensure a more even comeback between prosperous northern states and struggling southern ones. For now, however, it is held up by another fissure in EU politics: the nationalist governments of Poland and Hungary want to water down legislation binding recipients of EU funds to adherence to the rule of law. If the safeguards are maintained, it will fall to Von der Leyen’s commission to enforce them.
Once the recovery fund is finalised, Von der Leyen will have a chance to advance her priority agenda: the European green new deal. This aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and establish the EU as the global leader on climate change. Some 37 per cent of the recovery funds will be invested to further green new deal objectives, including a clean hydrogen economy and energy efficiency in construction. Thirty per cent will be raised through green bonds. “We have a limited amount of time to really change for the better and to transform into a growth strategy that is no more fossil fuel-based but that is giving back to nature as much as we’re taking from it,” she says.
Von der Leyen has been determined to lead on climate change, convinced that politicians must keep up with the concerns of society if they are to remain relevant: “If you look at the time left before tipping point, not many parties have understood that this green ambition is right. It’s at the right time, and you’d better find the right answers.”
The quest for relevance also defined her early political career in Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union party, which she helped steer towards more family- and women-friendly policies.
Von der Leyen was born in 1958 into the German political establishment and CDU aristocracy — her father, Ernst Albrecht, was a senior European official at one time and later became prime minister of Lower Saxony. She initially studied economics but switched to medicine in 1980 (she has a masters degree in public health and a doctorate in medicine). She inherited from her father a positive view of politics, she says, and decided to follow in his footsteps and to use her health training to effect policy change.
She entered national politics as minister for family, seniors, women and youth in Merkel’s first cabinet in 2005. By that time, she’d had seven children with husband Heiko von der Leyen, a professor of medicine. I ask how they coped with a large family.
“First of all, the most exhausting — if I may say so because they’re all wonderful, all seven of them — was having my first child. We went from total freedom to all of a sudden, 24 hours, seven days a week and 52 weeks a year responsibility and being on call,” she says. “I think the second one taught me you only have two arms and two legs . . . and then the third, well they say the third child is for the mother and I can underline that, for whatever reason, these babies are always relaxed, I guess because the whole household is somewhere on the floor.”
Women of 2020
From politicians and novelists to scientists and activists, the FT profiles this year’s game-changing women. Here are some to watch out for:
December 2: Jane Fraser, next Citigroup CEO
December 3: Gretchen Whitmer, governor of Michigan
December 3: Prof. Sarah Gilbert, Oxford vaccinologist
December 4: Miuccia Prada, fashion designer
December 4: Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter
December 5: Hilary Mantel, author of the Wolf Hall trilogy
She was exhausted and was often made to feel inadequate for wanting to be both a mother and a practising doctor. When, in 1992, her husband was offered a grant to teach at Stanford University, she grabbed the opportunity. Living in California liberated her as a mother and a professional, and shaped her views about women and work.
“It was the mid-1990s and [Americans] had an attitude that I had never encountered before,” she recalls. “In Germany, when I had my first child, they were disappointed at the hospital, they said, ‘Your career’s over.’ In California, they wanted to have the best in the world and they made sure that their faculty and staff feel good, that they have time for research and time for their family . . . Suddenly, I started to discover what a difference it makes if you have a positive backing of society and not a negative one.”
She became pregnant again, this time with twins. After four years, the couple returned to Germany. “When we moved back I was determined, and I managed to never have anybody make me have a bad conscience about doing what we do. And then, well, I had the sixth and the seventh child, and I was asked to be minister.”
Her husband took over caring for the children and she set out to “walk the talk” as minister for families, and later as minister for labour. She introduced family-friendly policies, including raising the number of nursery places and introducing allowances for fathers on paternity leave, and making it easier for women to juggle family and work.
The challenge to traditional family structures was unpopular within her party — but not across the country. “The young generation in Germany was more ready for the change and I had a lot of public backing,” says Von der Leyen. “A party has to move on and learn. It’s a bit like the green topic. There, too, my party came late, but it came.”
The CDU never quite warmed to Von der Leyen. She is often criticised for a failure to socialise or to campaign for MPs in elections. A non-drinker who relies on a long-serving group of advisers who she has taken with her to the commission, her priority was to travel back to her family in Lower Saxony on weekends.
Even in Brussels, Von der Leyen attracts mixed reviews, winning plaudits for thinking outside the box but also complaints that her working style is over-centralised and not sufficiently consultative. “She has not, over the years, really become a politician, unlike Merkel,” says a German politician. “She hasn’t immersed herself in the party or reached out to people.”
Von der Leyen’s popularity took another dip when she became the first woman to lead the defence ministry in 2013. Her time there was marred by scandals, including a parliamentary inquiry into the awarding of billion-euro consulting contracts. That put an end to any speculation that Merkel was grooming her for succession. The defence portfolio is not Von der Leyen’s favourite topic of conversation.
She tells me that modernising Germany’s armed forces is a “very difficult process” but without it she would not be in Brussels today. “Two months after I became defence minister, Russia annexed Crimea and started the hybrid war in eastern Ukraine. Three months later, Daesh (Isis) started in Syria and Iraq. Afghanistan was still going on. Then we had the crisis in the Sahel,” she says. As the crises accumulated, so did her experience in world affairs.
It was also a time when the international liberal order in which postwar Germany has thrived was shaken to the core with the 2016 election of Donald Trump in the US and Britain’s vote to leave the EU. Brexit was particularly painful for Von der Leyen, who is fond of Britain and had studied at the London School of Economics. “I love British humour — it’s phenomenal,” she enthuses.
But having once described Brexit as a “burst bubble of hollow promises by populists”, she says the EU has now adapted to the loss. However tough she’s been in negotiations, she says she is looking forward, not back. “At the end of 2020, it’s not the end of something but the beginning of a new relationship, and we will always work hard for a good relationship, whether Britain leaves with or without a deal.”
The EU can also now look forward to the resurrection of the transatlantic alliance following the election of Joe Biden. The abandonment of traditional allies under Trump had alarmed Europe and sped up the bloc’s pursuit of so-called strategic autonomy. Von der Leyen says Europe must still forge ahead with greater self-reliance. While she is relieved to have a friendly president back at the White House, the message she is eager to convey is that Europe now has a new-found confidence.
“We’re not going to pick up where we left off in 2016. The world has changed. The US has changed, but we have too,” she says. “The last four years have taught us an important lesson — that we have to define our position as Europeans.”
Roula Khalaf is editor of the Financial Times
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.