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Ready for the highest post in Europe

Ursula von der Leyen becomes president of the European Commission and the most powerful woman in Europe. Who is she? Where does she come from? What’s her way of thinking? Her biographer tells us.

Daniel Goffart, 24.10.2019
Ursula von der Leyen before the European Parliament
Ursula von der Leyen before the European Parliament © picture alliance/dpa

Ursula von der Leyen is well-known for her radiant smile. But over the past few months she has had to make a big effort to wear it. For a start the European Parliament elected the German politician by only a very narrow majority. And then the members of the European Parliament turned down three candidates who had been nominated by the member states for the new European Commission. The one who had to remain steady in this political test of strength between the European Parliament and the European Council was the upcoming president. Her accession to the position was scheduled for the beginning of November, but this will now most likely be delayed by several weeks, at an extremely difficult time for Europe. So it will be a pretty bumpy start for the 60-year-old politician from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Nevertheless, at just 1.61 metres in height, the petite Ursula von der Leyen is not one to be deterred by political headwinds. Although the daughter of the long-standing Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, Ernst Albrecht, grew up in an influential family home, she always fought her own way into the upper echelons of politics, with great willpower and inexhaustible energy.

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Who is this woman who will be taking on the most important position available in Europe? UvdL, as she is dubbed in Berlin’s political circles, is a strong woman: a fully qualified physician, mother of seven children, an accomplished dressage rider, and one of the most experienced female German politicians. Her most valuable assets in Brussels will be her ability to work in close collaboration and to achieve viable compromises, skills she has learned within the complex power structures of Germany’s federal republic. As President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen will have to develop an acute awareness when sifting through the many wishes of the member states and distilling them into a form that will be palatable for the heads of state and government assembled in the European Council. She is definitely capable of this. As a German politician who has borne government responsibility for decades and has had to assert herself in the Bundesrat against 16 often very obstinate federal states, she is well equipped to come to terms with the member states of the European Union.

In this way she was introduced to the basic rules of political show business in her early childhood.
Daniel Goffart

Born in Brussels

In addition to this, von der Leyen has an international background. She was born in Brussels, where she spent the first 14 years of her life. She still speaks perfect French. In those days her father was a high-ranking EU official. He became Director-General of the Competition Commission before he and his family moved to Hanover. Ernst Albrecht regularly involved his whole family in his election campaigns. They were photographed in the local park with ponies, goats and dogs, or they invited the photographer to a family music session in their stately living room. That’s where Rosy, as the CDU patriarch nicknamed his only daughter, played the piano to the delight of the press reporters. In this way she was introduced to the basic rules of political show business in her early childhood.

A late start in politics

Despite the family influences, her own entry into politics came fairly late. Ursula set out in an effort to distance herself from her dominating family and studied economics in London. But this was not what she wanted. She broke off her studies in London, returned to Hanover and studied medicine. While at university there, she met her future husband. The fact that Heiko von der Leyen was a member of the SPD at the time was just as unimportant to Ursula as his ‘Nuclear Power – No thank You’ sticker  on his car. In 1987 she completed her qualifications as a medical doctor. By that time she had already been married for a year and had given birth to her first child. The growing family moved to California, because Heiko was already a professor and had been offered a post at the prestigious Stanford University. Today he is also managing director of a company involved in clinical studies.

Ursula von der Leyen with Angela Merkel
Ursula von der Leyen with Angela Merkel © picture alliance / Photoshot

In 1996 the von der Leyen family returned to Hanover. During her time abroad, Ursula von der Leyen had developed almost perfect English skills as well as a deep understanding of America and the Anglo-Saxon mentality. In Hanover she worked for five years in a hospital. Finally, in 2003 she took the plunge and entered politics. This marked the start of a meteoric career. At her first attempt, she immediately gained a seat in the state parliament of Lower Saxony and, as a complete novice, was appointed State Minister for Health and Social Affairs. This was just the beginning. Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel soon spotted her. As Minister for Family Affairs in Berlin von der Leyen successfully fought for the right to public day care for children and for the reconciliation of work and family life. Four years later, as Federal Minister of Labour, she began a long campaign for female quotas in German management and supervisory boards. And still she kept on rising. Ursula von der Leyen had long since been seen as the favourite among the potential successors to Chancellor Merkel. As a result Merkel confronted her with her biggest challenge so far by giving her the toughest post available in Berlin in 2013: Minister of Defence. Suddenly UvdL’s popularity started to decline. Von der Leyen never managed to establish a meaningful relationship with the soldiers.

Ursula von der Leyen with Emmanuel Macron
Ursula von der Leyen with Emmanuel Macron © picture alliance /

But then the tides turned, without her or anyone else noticing. On 17 June, the Minister of Defence travelled to the International Paris Air Show in Le Bourget. The French President was also there.  Von der Leyen, charming and well-informed, conversed in fluent French with Emmanuel Macron about Nato and security issues. According to subsequent reports from inside the Elysée Palace in Paris, Macron was apparently highly impressed by the savvy woman from Germany. And apparently, Macron had now decided to introduce Ursula von der Leyen as an alternative German candidate to the European People’s Party’s top candidate Manfred Weber. This even came as a surprise to Angela Merkel. So there really are such significant moments in life, when decisions are in the making, but you are unaware of the implications of a fleeting encounter. For Ursula von der Leyen, the presidency of the European Commission is not only the pinnacle of her political career, it is also a kind of homecoming to Brussels, thus completing the circle.

Daniel Goffart is chief correspondent of the news magazine Focus in Berlin and author of the biography Ursula von der Leyen (with Ulrike Demmer). The book will be published at the beginning of November 2019 by Piper Verlag.


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