While announcing the nominations for top jobs in the EU government, president of the European Council Donald Tusk lead with the unanimity of the vote, and the fact they chose two women and two men. ‘A perfect balance,’ he said. ‘I’m really happy about it. After all, Europe is a woman.’ Ursula von der Leyen, the nominee for president of the European Commission, and a defence minister in Germany whose time in office has been plagued by scandals, may have wished for a greater recommendation than that.
In a speech acknowledging her nomination in Strasbourg, Ursula presented herself as a true internationalist. She can speak English, French and German fluently, and deployed them all in her speech. While she was applauded publicly, there is fierce grumbling inside the parliament itself.
Number one among them is that her appearance comes out of left-field. Von der Leyen has never campaigned for office within the EU, although her name has been floated in the past for parliamentary office, for example, as an MEP. She was also not a ‘Spitzenkandidat’ – a candidate put forward by the European parliamentary parties to act as their public face, and as a candidate for the presidency. Von der Leyen does not have a significant international profile, and, at a time when the EU is under increasing interior and international scrutiny, that is a significant weakness.
There is also broader discontent about her nomination given her record in German government. Her tenure as defence minister has been dogged by controversy: far-right extremists in the military, equipment malfunctions and a fatal helicopter crash among them. She has been criticised by important German ministers, including a former minister of defence, Rupert Scholz. “The Bundeswehr’s condition is catastrophic,” he wrote last week, prior to Von der Leyen’s nomination. “The entire defense capability of the Federal Republic is suffering, which is totally irresponsible.” Former European Parliament president Martin Schulz chipped in, tweeting last week: “Von der Leyen is our weakest minister. That’s apparently enough to become Commission president.”
Then there’s the parliamentary inquiry, still ongoing, about spending in the ministry (and an attempted cover-up) during her tenure. It is uncertain what the outcome of that inquiry will be at the moment. An extraordinary situation would follow if the newly elected president of the Commission is implicated in a criminal cover-up.
Finally, there is her record as a staunch integrationalist. “My aim is the United States of Europe,” she said to German magazine Der Spiegel in 2011. More recently, in an interview with Die Zeit in 2016, she said: “I imagine the Europe of my children or grandchildren not as a loose union of states trapped by national interests.” A unified Europe has scarce popular support in its constituent nations – something important to note at a time when national-populist governments are being elected with EU-Skeptic platforms, and when one the once major economies in the EU is leaving, in part for fear of such intentions.
Although Von der Leyen has received the nomination, she is not guaranteed the job: half of the parliament still needs to vote in her favour. The German SPD party is thoroughly against her nomination, not least because she is conservative and she sidelined their Spitzenkandidat. They’ve even threatened to leave the coalition in Germany over her nomination, and party members recently called out what they believed to be her deficiencies in a paper circulated among their parliament group. The Socialist grouping to which the SPD belongs has 154 of the assembly’s total 751 seats: not enough alone to block her, but, as detailed, they are not the only ones with a axe to grind over her nomination. So there is the possibly that she won’t get the presidency.
Once seen as a possible successor to Merkel or the secretary-general of NATO, the recent scandals surrounding her tenure as defence minister have tarnished von der Leyen’s reputation. The nomination itself seems to suggest a bureaucratic and disinterested approach to such a top appointment – for instance, Germany abstained from voting for her, and Merkel has not come out strongly in her defence. Von der Leyen’s move from Berlin to Brussels, if it does come about, will not be the result of triumph in her domestic role, but a controversial tenure as defence minister and ongoing parliamentary scrutiny. As the first German in 50 years to hold such a senior position, and the first woman ever, she has a lot to prove.