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EU leaders tap Germany's Ursula von der Leyen as Commission chief

It would be the first time a German holds the top EU job since Walter Hallstein was head of the Commission of the European Economic Community more than half a century ago


Ursula von der Leyen
Ursula von der Leyen, new EU Chief

Ursula von der Leyen, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s defense minister and fellow conservative party member, was nominated by leaders to become the bloc’s next chief executive after a brutal final round to weeks of horsetrading.

The Council will also propose IMF chief Christine Lagarde to head the European Central Bank and Charles Michel as president of the European Council. Spain’s Josep Borrell Fontelles will be foreign policy chief. Lagarde said in a tweet she would “temporarily relinquish her responsibilities as IMF Managing Director during the nomination process.”

Merkel, whose initial plans had suffered a setback on Sunday, came out with a German at the helm of the union. She abstained from voting in the 28-member council, after many of the German Social Democrats, her junior coalition partner, opposed the deal.

Von der Leyen’s name emerged as a compromise after a Merkel-backed plan that would have given the job to the Socialists was rejected by her own center-right allies. It would be the first time a German holds the top EU job since Walter Hallstein was head of the Commission of the European Economic Community more than half a century ago.

Her challenge will be to navigate a world of bruising trade wars, renewed geopolitical tension surrounding Iran, as well calls for increased transparency and representation within the bloc itself.

A deputy leader of Merkel’s Christian Democratic party, von der Leyen must still be ratified by an absolute majority in the European Parliament to become commission president.

Parliamentary Hurdles

Von der Leyen’s nomination still faces a serious hurdle in parliament because leading members of its Socialist group, the No. 2 faction in the 28-nation assembly, are opposed. While the broader Socialist group is split, an indication of how the faction will eventually vote on von der Leyen’s nomination may come on Wednesday, when the assembly is due to elect its own president.

The post is supposed to go to a Socialist under the summit deal, but the group’s members are weighing support for a Green member of the assembly named Ska Keller. The Greens, the EU Parliament’s fourth-largest group, have said they oppose the summit package.

Von der Leyen’s appointment will probably ensure little changes in the EU’s position on Brexit. While she hasn’t expressed many views on the U.K.’s departure in public as defense minister, her arrival in Brussels from the ranks of the German government means it’s likely to be business as usual at the commission. This will dash the hopes of the two contenders to be the next British prime minister that the bloc will offer to renegotiate the Brexit deal.

Political Moderate

Von der Leyen, 60, is the only minister who has been in Merkel’s government since the German leader took office in 2005. As a trained doctor who raised seven children, she cut a compelling figure in German politics -- and for most of the 14 years of Merkel’s stewardship was considered a natural successor as chancellor.

More recently, her once-bright political star faded somewhat. At the defense ministry, von der Leyen has faced probing questions about Germany’s military readiness, procurement projects that have run aground, and the prevalence of outside consultants.

When Merkel abandoned the party leadership late last year, von der Leyen stayed in the background and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer took the job instead. Within the CDU, von der Leyen has been a champion of Merkel’s moderate course, backing pension increases, expansion of childcare and gender quotas that sections of her party had opposed. Those positions never helped her expand a base of support among conservatives.

Brussels Homecoming

A top post in Brussels would be a homecoming for von der Leyen, who was born in the Belgian capital in 1958 while her father, Ernst Albrecht, was a senior official in the European Commission. Albrecht returned the family to West Germany, where he served as state premier of Lower Saxony from 1976 to 1990.

A strong advocate of trans-Atlantic cooperation, Von der Leyen was a latecomer to politics, entering the CDU in 1990. She had previously worked as a gynecologist in the Lower Saxon capital Hanover. While then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl promoted Merkel to his cabinet after East and West Germany reunited in 1990, von der Leyen won a seat in her home-state legislature in 2003 after her children were born.

In Merkel’s government she served as family minister, labor minister and defense minister. Von der Leyen lived in California for years and is fluent in English and French.

First Published: Wed, July 03 2019. 02:05 IST