When Ursula von der Leyen was nominated for the role of European Commission president, she was pitched as a compromise candidate. Someone the various factions could get behind to end their unseemly squabbling. French leader Emmanuel Macron, a champion of Von der Leyen’s cause, said that ‘European DNA’, the genetic code of cross-continental consensus, coursed through her veins.
In Von der Leyen’s home state, it’s hard to find many who would recognize this portrayal. In Germany, she is nicknamed ‘Steel Magnolia’, a battleaxe who burns bridges where others build them. She’s already one of the country’s least popular politicians, and once she assumes residence in Brussels, it’s only going to get worse. Having risen to the EU’s top job with the backing of Angela Merkel, Von der Leyen’s policies have put her on a collision course with her long-standing ally.
Von der Leyen was one of Merkel’s first cabinet picks when she became chancellor way back in 2005. She’s remained in the government ever since, the only person to have been there throughout Merkel’s entire reign. But she’s made plenty of enemies along the way, as was glaringly evident during her recent election campaign.
Former Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz, whose party told its MEPs not to vote for Von der Leyen, described her as “the government’s weakest minister.” This reaction was echoed at all points on the political compass, from the Greens to the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland. Even Katarina Barley, who previously served alongside Von der Leyen in Merkel’s government and is now a vice-president of the European Parliament, vowed to vote against her.
As political commentator Christian Weilmeier explains, Von der Leyen’s reputation is at an all-time low among the German people – only a third of whom think she’s the right person to lead Europe. While Merkel is generally respected for her basic decency, Von der Leyen is caricatured as a lone wolf who’s never afraid to bare her teeth. As Weilmeier tells InsideOver, “she’s seen as very career-oriented, very selfish. She’s not with the people, she’s focused on her own world. She’ll always pursue what’s good for her.”
During her time as defence minister, Von der Leyen provided ample evidence of her lone-wolfishness. Weilmeier describes her tenure as “a disaster”, a view reinforced by one former German army officer, who spoke to InsideOver anonymously. The newspapers may have focused on reports that Von der Leyen subverted government procurement rules to hire a series of external consultants, including one which employed her son. But as the officer tells us, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
“She was always quick to blame others for her mistakes,” the officer says. “We had an assault rifle crisis for example, and she blamed everyone but herself. Then it emerged that there was a plot to frame refugees for terror attacks, and she handled it terribly. She said there was a racism problem in the Germany army, and a failure of leadership. How can you say that to people in combat, who risk their lives? It was a disgrace.
“She fired generals of 40 years’ service without even telling them, and ordered pictures of generals taken down from barrack walls because they’d fought in World War II – even though they’d served the German army for years in the post-war period.
“In the army, you won’t find who’s sad that she’s gone. As a European citizen, I can only say that I’m sorry for our continent.”
A sad day for democracy
Von der Leyen may have hoped that, by swapping Berlin for Brussels, she might escape some of the criticism. But the manner of her ascent to the top job has only heightened the scrutiny back home.
In backing Von der Leyen, EU leaders defied a protocol known as spitzenkandidaten, which obliges them to choose from the candidates nominated by the Europe’s MEPs. If you’re struggling to work out which country came up with this protocol, the name’s a bit of a giveaway.
To make matters even more sensitive, the EU leaders chose her over another German, Manfred Weber, who had been nominated by an overwhelming margin in his party. Weber has since become one of Von der Leyen’s most vehement critics in the German press, calling her election “a sad day for European democracy,”
Now, however, Von der Leyen has the chance to stamp her authority. She’s already shown her willingness to go against her home country by removing Martin Selmayr, the powerful head of the European Commission’s civil service, after vowing that “there can be only high-ranking German at the top… and hopefully this will be me.”
Soon, however, she’ll have to start putting her ideas into practice, which is likely to throw up even more obstacles from her own state.
The centerpiece of Von der Leyen’s campaign was the promise of a ‘Green Deal’, designed to make Europe carbon-neutral by 2050. She wants to ramp up the bloc’s emissions reduction targets and prevent companies shuffling between EU countries to dodge pollution restrictions. She’s even pledged to turn part of the European Investment Bank into a climate bank, unlocking €1 million of investment. Will this go down well with Nigel Farage?
Merkel has some impressive credentials when it comes to climate change, having steered the UN’s inaugural climate change conference way back in 1995. However, under pressure from German industrial lobbyists, she’s actively worked against many of the EU’s most progressive environmental measures.
On Merkel’s watch, the German government has given away generous pollution rights to its factory chiefs and blocked EU plans to limit new car emissions. The chancellor has pressured Brussels to water down its climate targets and opposed plans to increase the share of renewables in the overall energy mix. She’s even rejected the idea of pushing for zero carbon emissions by 2050 – the very target Von der Leyen is running with.
Yet all this pales into insignificance compared with the potential impact of Nordstream 2, the new pipeline which will pump gas from Russia to Germany via the Baltic, cutting countries such as Ukraine and Poland out of the loop. These countries fear Russia may now cut off their gas supply, or even launch military action with no pesky supply deals to worry about. Observers further afield worry about Vladimir Putin gaining too much influence over European affairs. Yet Merkel has consistently defied the EU’s attempts to take control of the Nordstream project, and she’s succeeded in brokering a deal which allows Germany to decide whether or not the EU’s regulations should apply.
For Von der Leyen, a proud Putin hawk, the idea of the Kremlin having a foothold in the heart of Europe doesn’t bear thinking about. But to guard against this chilling reality, and deliver her flagship environmental package, she may have to rally herself for a showdown with the woman who helped put her in office.
Will such a showdown come to pass? Christian Weilmeier says it’s “very difficult to say. Von der Leyen’s been part of Merkel’s inner circle for years and I presume that, in the event of severe differences, Merkel will try to avoid any rupture.
“On the other hand, Von der Leyen will stay longer in office than Merkel, so will be eager to avoid anything which could rock her power within the Commission. She must consider more interests than Merkel, especially Macron, who has a different agenda than Merkel. Merkel always tries to avoid open conflicts, but this is no guarantee that this strategy will be successful in this case.
“One thing’s for sure: Von der Leyen won’t be a Commission president who defends German interests. Germany, and its mode of politics, will face big trouble in the years to come.”