Martin Schulz could barely conceal his disgust at the news that EU leaders had backed Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defence minister, to be the new leader of the European Commission.
She is “the weakest minister in the government”, the former European Parliament president said. “[But] apparently such a performance suffices to become head of the commission.”
Among members of her own party, on the other hand, there was relief. “It’s good for the army that she’s going,” said one Christian Democratic Union MP. “Her years as minister have been really hard for the armed forces.”
Ms von der Leyen’s surprise nomination has provoked widespread bemusement in Germany. Mistrusted by her fellow Christian Democrats, pilloried by the opposition and disliked by many of the generals under her command, she cuts a lonely figure in Berlin. Few ministries have generated as many negative headlines as hers over the years. Yet she has now been named to one of the most powerful jobs in Europe.
A relieved and upbeat Angela Merkel said on Tuesday evening that Ms von der Leyen had received “strong backing” from EU government heads, They recalled, she said, her role in crafting a Nato mission in the Aegean that helped to mitigate Europe’s refugee crisis, and in forming a multinational battle group for Lithuania as part of Nato’s “enhanced forward presence”. Her strong commitment to Europe was also praised.
And, she added, it would be the first time since Walter Hallstein in the 1950s and ‘60s that a German would occupy the office of commission president.
But that did not prove enough to persuade her junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats. Their three interim leaders issued a joint statement on Tuesday evening rejecting Ms von der Leyen’s nomination, implying it breached the spirit of their coalition agreement with the CDU in 2018. It was, they said, “absurd” that the three Spitzenkandidaten in the European Parliament poll had been passed over and a candidate chosen who had not even stood for election.
Indeed, objections from the SPD meant Ms Merkel was forced to abstain at Tuesday’s vote by EU government heads on Ms von der Leyen’s candidacy, after briefly consulting on the phone with her coalition partner.
SPD opposition does not bode well for the future of Ms Merkel’s shaky “grand coalition”. The fear is that Ms von der Leyen’s nomination could provoke a row in a government already riven by conflicts over everything from tax to pensions to arms exports.
Ms von der Leyen clearly has a fight on her hands to secure the EU presidency. But she has shown her mettle before. As Germany’s commander-in-chief she oversees 250,000 soldiers and civilians who have often chafed under her rule. Considering the brickbats lobbed at her over the years, few could have predicted that she would last so long in the job.
Ms von der Leyen was born in Brussels in 1958, the daughter of Ernst Albrecht, a senior EU official who later became prime minister of the German state of Lower Saxony. As a child she attended the European School in Brussels, where she became fluent in English and French.
She studied economics before switching to medicine in 1980 and later worked as a gynaecologist. In 1986 she married Heiko von der Leyen, the scion of an aristocratic family that had made a fortune in silk. They have seven children.
The struggle to balance work and family life has been a leitmotif of her career. When she had her first child, “my colleagues were deeply disappointed because they were convinced that I would never come back” she told the Financial Times in 2013. “That was the German story. It was 1987.”
But her boss told her he expected her back in a year and kept her job open for her. “If he had not said that, I would not be sitting here today,” she said.
Ms Merkel quickly identified her as a potential ally in her efforts to modernise the CDU and in 2005 she tapped her as family minister. As minister she increased the number of nursery places in Germany and expanded parental leave for fathers, earning her the enmity of conservatives in the CDU who accused her of undermining the traditional family.
In 2013 she became Germany’s first female defence minister, a job long seen as an “ejector seat” for German politicians. One of her first initiatives was to try to make the army more attractive to young families by offering crèches for soldiers’ children.
She presided over a huge increase in Germany’s military budget, after years of swingeing cuts, and a big expansion of the Bundeswehr’s international deployments. But the poor state of the armed forces, with grounded aircraft, non-operational submarines and chronic staff shortages, is legendary. Germany has been repeatedly lambasted by US President Donald Trump for failing to spend 2 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence, despite its promise to do so.
Ms von der Leyen also earned the opprobrium of officers by claiming in 2017 that the Bundeswehr had an “attitude problem”, after it emerged that an officer with radical rightwing views had been plotting attacks on politicians.
There have been more negative headlines this year. Her ministry is being investigated by MPs over allegations it improperly awarded contracts to outside consultants.
Then there is the case of the Gorch Fock, a sailing ship used by the ministry for training. A scathing report this year by Germany’s audit office found that costs for repairing the boat that originally stood at €10m had now spiralled to an eye-popping €135m.
Against the backdrop of such scandals, some politicians expressed incredulity that Ms von der Leyen was now being considered for the EU’s most senior job. “Europe deserves something better,” tweeted Sven Giegold, a Green MEP. Jörg Meuthen, a leader of the rightwing Alternative for Germany, said that under von der Leyen the commission would become as “unseaworthy as the Gorch Fock”.
Ms Merkel put a somewhat different gloss on her ally’s nomination on Tuesday evening. It was, she said, “a good sign for me that, for the first time, a woman will hold this office”.
“If I may say that even without respect to my gender and party affiliation, it’s just a really good thing.”