The woman nominated for Commission chief has plenty of critics back home.
BERLIN — A polyglot Brussels native who reared seven children and earned a medical degree on the side before storming to the top of German politics.
News that this Wunderfrau — aka German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen — could become the Commission’s next president left European capitals abuzz on Tuesday. "Finally some good news" was the general tenor. Who needs a Spitzenkandidat when you can have a Homecoming Queen?
At first glance, the affable 60-year-old minister with a camera-ready smile looks to be a perfect fit, with the requisite experience, political pedigree and personality to handle the EU’s toughest job.
And yet a nagging question remains: Is she too good to be true?
In the German capital, the answer is clear.
“The Bundeswehr’s condition is catastrophic" — Rupert Scholz, former German defense minister
“Von der Leyen is our weakest minister. That’s apparently enough to become Commission president,” former European Parliament President Martin Schulz seethed in a tweet Tuesday evening.
Though Schulz is a Social Democrat, his analysis of the minister’s record is shared by many of von der Leyen’s fellow Christian Democrats, though most are reluctant to criticize her publicly. Instead, they point to the state of the German military.
“The Bundeswehr’s condition is catastrophic," Rupert Scholz, who served as defense minister under Helmut Kohl, wrote last week before von der Leyen was nominated to the EU’s top post. “The entire defense capability of the Federal Republic is suffering, which is totally irresponsible."
Among friends and foes alike, von der Leyen’s stewardship of the defense ministry, which she has headed since 2014, is regarded as a failure.
Von der Leyen has been blamed, in some quarters, for letting the Bundeswehr fall into a state of disrepair
“There is neither enough personnel nor material, and often one confronts shortage upon shortage,” Hans-Peter Bartels, a Social Democrat MP charged with monitoring the Bundeswehr for parliament, concluded in a report published at the end of January. “The troops are far from being fully equipped.”
In addition to problems surrounding the German military’s readiness, von der Leyen’s ministry also faces an investigation into suspected wrongdoing surrounding its use of outside consultants, including Accenture and McKinsey.
The Bundestag, the German parliament, is currently holding hearings into the affair, including accusations that von der Leyen’s office circumvented public procurement rules in granting contracts worth millions of euros to the firms. Those hearings have taken a dramatic turn in recent days as testimony from key witnesses appeared to confirm suspicions of systematic corruption at the ministry.
Von der Leyen is also under fire for agreeing to refurbish the German navy’s three-masted training ship, the Gorch Fock. The overhaul of the ship, christened in 1958, has ended up costing more than 10 times what was originally projected.
Though von der Leyen has acknowledged making mistakes along the way, she has ignored repeated demands from the opposition benches for her resignation.
Even though von der Leyen doesn’t have many friends in Berlin, the ones she does have matter. The minister is close to Wolfgang Schäuble, the influential president of the German parliament. For more than a decade, the two met for breakfast once a week, a tradition that only ended when Schäuble became Bundestag president.
Her most important ally, however, is Angela Merkel, whom von der Leyen has stuck by through thick and thin. Merkel has returned the loyalty by leaving von der Leyen in place despite mounting problems at the defense ministry — and by backing her for the Commission leadership.
Von der Leyen has never worked for the EU, but she is no stranger to Brussels, where she spent most of her childhood. Ernst Albrecht, her father, worked for the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community, precursors to the EU, before moving back to Germany where he pursued a career in regional politics. He became premier of Lower Saxony in 1976, a position he held until 1990 (he lost reelection that year to Gerhard Schröder, who would go on to become German chancellor).
Though von der Leyen was born into a political family, she was a late bloomer in pursuing her own career in politics. It was only after she had finished her medical studies and lived for several years in the U.S. with her family that she set her sights on a political career in Germany.
After climbing through the ranks in Lower Saxony, von der Leyen joined Merkel’s first Cabinet in 2005, heading the Ministry for Family, Seniors, Women and Youth. She became labor minister in Merkel’s second Cabinet in 2009 before taking over the defense ministry in 2014, becoming the first woman to hold that office.
Von der Leyen’s rapid rise fueled speculation that she could one day step into Merkel’s shoes. Yet her failure to put the German military back on track dashed whatever hopes she may have had of becoming chancellor.
Fixing the German army, which had been starved of resources for years after the end of the Cold War, was a herculean task. Von der Leyen blamed many of the problems facing the armed forces on her predecessors. Now in her fifth year atop the ministry, she can no longer point fingers.
Von der Leyen was once mooted as a potential successor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Her biggest failure at the ministry may have been in not winning over the officer corps and troops. As a woman in a male-dominated universe, von der Leyen was never going to have an easy task. But current and former aides describe her management style as distant and defensive. She surrounded herself at the ministry with a small group of aides who kept tight control on the flow of information. Many interactions with rank-and-file troops were in the form of photo-ops, which often showed the minister in dramatic poses alongside military equipment.
She offended many service members by saying publicly in 2017, after the discovery of a right-wing extremist in the ranks, that the Bundeswehr suffered from “weak leadership at various levels.”
Such episodes opened up von der Leyen to criticism that she was more interested in her own image than backing the troops.
If so, she had plenty of reason for concern. In 2015, well before the procurement scandal erupted, von der Leyen faced plagiarism accusations in connection with the thesis she wrote when she studied medicine.
Several years earlier, similar accusations had forced one of her predecessors as defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, to resign. In 2013, Annette Schavan, another Merkel confidante who served as education minister, was also forced to step down after evidence emerged that she had plagiarized passages in her thesis.
Will Ursula von der Leyen sink or swim in Brussels' top job?
Von der Leyen was luckier. Though a university commission confirmed that von der Leyen had failed to properly cite the sources for much of the material in her dissertation, it determined that the omissions weren’t intentional and didn’t undermine her central thesis.
Though von der Leyen is an engaging speaker and a favorite on Germany’s talkshow circuit, the perpetual whiff of scandal surrounding her and her ministry has eroded her ratings among voters. Once one of Germany’s most popular politicians, she fell out of the top 10 last year.
That’s just one reason her party would be more than happy to see her go to Brussels. Another is that her departure would open up a key slot in Merkel’s Cabinet. If all goes according to plan, the chancellor would fill the post with her hand-picked successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who succeeded Merkel as CDU leader in December. Von der Leyen’s departure would offer Kramp-Karrenbauer a perfect opportunity to prove herself in a big job.
What the rest of Europe gets out of the bargain is another question.