Europe’s Ursula von der Leyen: leadership forged in crisis - GulfToday

Europe’s Ursula von der Leyen: Leadership forged in crisis

Ursula von der Leyen

Ursula von der Leyen

Catapulted to the helm of the European Commission five years ago, Ursula von der Leyen has come a long way: after a mandate marked by back-to-back crises from Covid to the Ukraine war, she emerged as the voice of the 27-nation EU — and is gunning for a second term. The first female president of the bloc’s executive arm, the 65-year-old conservative politician was a relative unknown outside Germany when she was tapped for the job in 2019, in a surprise deal between Paris and Berlin. Since then, von der Leyen has brought a presence of her own to the role, coming to embody an institution long cast as faceless — and projecting a renewed European assertiveness on the world stage.

When von der Leyen was first appointed, the welcome in Brussels, the city where she was born and lived until her early teens, was cool to say the least. She secured the European Parliament’s backing by just nine votes. “VDL,” as she is nicknamed in EU circles, still has her detractors.

Operating from the 13th floor of the Berlaymont, the commission’s hulking HQ where she also has her sleeping quarters, she relies on a tight-knit coterie of advisors — a centralised, top-down modus operandi that rubs many the wrong way in the Belgian capital.

As she worked to expand the bloc’s international role, von der Leyen also pushed back — overstepped her critics would say — the boundaries of her own job. She has on occasion infuriated European leaders, like last October, when while visiting Tel Aviv she backed Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas, without stressing that any military response must be bound by international law. But von der Leyen has made her mark in Brussels, and at this point her chances of a second term, while by no means guaranteed, appear solid.

“There were a couple of major inflexion points where she managed to do the things that were needed and made herself visible doing them,” summed up one European diplomat.

When Europe was brought to its knees by the Covid-19 pandemic, von der Leyen steered a groundbreaking, 750-billion-euro recovery plan funded by joint debt that became a symbol of EU solidarity.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, she was resolute in her support for Kyiv, setting to work on reducing Europe’s energy dependency on Moscow. Throughout her mandate, she has forcefully defended the Green Deal aimed at meeting the EU’s climate targets — at the risk of alienating her own camp, the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), and of making herself increasingly a target for the anti-establishment far-right. Perfectly trilingual, she juggles English, French and her native German in crisp, tightly-scripted speeches, a communication style both detached and effective.

Beyond the bloc’s borders, she has provided — to some extent — an answer to the old question raised by Henry Kissinger: when the US president needs to speak to Europe, who does he call? For Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group risk consultancy, von der Leyen built a “very good” relationship with the current White House occupant Joe Biden. “Biden trusts her, he likes her,” Bremmer told AFP. “They coordinate well.” Though her pop-coloured jackets are something of a trademark, and the mother-of-seven has long championed women’s rights, von der Leyen’s gender has seldom been an issue in office -- save for an infamous incident known as “Sofagate.”

During a visit to Istanbul in April 2021, the commission chief found herself relegated to a sofa during a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Charles Michel, her European Council counterpart -- seated in a pair of armchairs.

The scene went viral, and von der Leyen pulled no punches afterwards, telling lawmakers: “I have to conclude, it happened because I am a woman.”

Von der Leyen’s father was a titan of German regional politics who spent time at the European Commission -- hence her early life in Brussels.

She herself was a relative latecomer to politics: she initially studied medicine and lived in the United States with her physician husband, returning to Germany in the 1990s.

That’s when she became involved in local politics — in the Hanover region, where she still has a family farm with horses — kickstarting a rapid rise that would see her serve in all four of Angela Merkel’s cabinets, from 2005 to 2019. Von der Leyen was once viewed as a presumptive successor to Merkel, but her star dimmed at home following a rocky stint as defence minister, tarnished by a series of scandals. She has spoken often of her early years and how they shaped her vision of Europe. “I was born in Brussels as a European, finding out only later that I am German with roots in Lower Saxony,” she said back in 2019.

“And that is why there is only one option for me: to unite and strengthen Europe.” Intended to push through the EU’s ambitious environmental goals, the Green Deal spearheaded by commission chief Ursula von der Leyen ushered in sweeping transport and energy reforms, before stumbling in the face of resistance from farmers. Of the deal’s 70-odd regulations aimed at making the bloc carbon-neutral and preserving its biodiversity, most have been adopted or are on their way to being. But a certain number have stalled or been shelved outright.

Agence France-Presse

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