Europe

Ursula von der Leyen: First woman to lead the EU

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen briefs the media at the EU Parliament in Brussels, 10 July 2019 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ursula von der Leyen is a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel

"For me, it's like coming home," said Ursula von der Leyen of her new job as president of the European Commission. Brussels born and bred, she is a former German defence minister, a long-term ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the first woman to head the EU's powerful executive.

Mrs von der Leyen replaced Jean-Claude Juncker in the EU's top job on 1 December 2019 and part of her role will be to see through Brexit.

Since taking office she has warned that talks over the bloc's future relationship with Britain face a "cliff-edge situation" that would "impact more on the UK" and has suggested, if necessary, agreeing an extension to the December 2020 deadline.

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Media captionBrexit will harm UK more than EU, warns Ursula von der Leyen

But she was not the first choice for the job. She was not especially popular in her previous role among Germany's armed forces, and only emerged from the shadows as a candidate for Commission chief when initial compromise deals collapsed.

Eventually she was nominated by EU member states and then backed by the European Parliament.

Her responsibilities include proposing new EU laws, enforcing the bloc's rules and handling trade deals.

Mrs von der Leyen has a reputation as a workaholic. Her decision to sleep in a bedsit adjoining her office at the Commission HQ rather than making a home in Brussels has also raised eyebrows.

Where does she stand on the big issues?

She set out her values both prior to and after assuming office:

  • Gender balance: Mrs von der Leyen, the first woman to take on the presidency, selected a team of 27 EU commissioners that sees 12 women get a seat at the top table.
  • Climate change: Within days of taking office she promised a "European Green Deal", to set Europe on a path to "climate neutrality" by 2050 - removing greenhouse gas emissions from the air - and creating a transition fund for countries still dependent on fossil fuels.
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Media captionUrsula von der Leyen said she wanted Europe to be the first "climate-neutral" continent
  • Brexit: She warned the UK that the timetable to conclude an agreement - by the end of 2020 - was "extremely challenging", adding that whatever happened, the EU would remain united and continue to benefit from its single market and customs union.
  • Migration: She said she was committed to reforming the EU's asylum system, which member states have been struggling with for years, with a reinforced border guard. She spoke in favour of enlarging the eurozone and the EU's open-border Schengen area, and said the bloc should be ready to take in Western Balkan countries.
  • Defence: While backing Nato as the "cornerstone of our collective defence", she said the EU should invest in joint defence capacities that would complement those of the Western alliance. The EU should "become more assertive" towards the United States, she said.
  • Geopolitics: She promised to lead a "geopolitical Commission" but will struggle to overcome internal differences on foreign policy within the EU bloc.

What's her background?

Born in Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen's family moved to Germany when she was 13. She studied economics at London's LSE and medicine in Hanover before going into politics.

Fluent in English and French, she has been a member of Mrs Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) since 2005.

She told the European Parliament that her father, Ernst Albrecht, who was a senior official in Brussels in the 1950s before becoming a German state premier, had always told his children that when countries traded, they built friendships and did not shoot each other.

Now 61, Mrs von der Leyen is the mother of seven children, highly unusual in a country where the average birth rate is 1.59 children per woman.

She is seen as a staunch integrationist, backing closer military co-operation in the EU and highlighting the "potential Europe has to unify and to promote peace".

Her appointment as German defence minister in 2013 was unexpected and followed three months of coalition talks between the CDU and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

As defence minister in the EU's most industrialised and populous country, she argued for Germany to boost its military involvement in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).

However, her tenure in the defence post was not without incident.

What was her record as defence minister?

In recent years, a litany of stories have exposed inadequacies in Germany's armed forces, from inoperable submarines and aircraft to shortages of personnel.

A report published last year highlighted the shortfalls, saying they were "dramatically" hindering Germany's readiness for combat. It said that no submarines or large transport planes were available for deployment at the end of 2017.

While her appointment was initially seen as a fresh start for a German ministry beset by problems, Mrs von der Leyen was questioned as part of an investigation into spending irregularities.

Her defence department was accused of awarding questionable private contracts to consultants that were said to be worth millions of euros.

She later admitted that a number of errors were made in allocating contracts and that new measures were being implemented to prevent it happening again.

That period of her career has not gone away. In December 2019, German MPs accused the defence ministry of deliberately deleting key data from her office mobile phone in an attempt to obstruct their investigation.

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