Time magazine named the President of the European Commission as “the most powerful woman in Europe”
Ursula von der Leyen. —AFP
When Angela Merkel stepped down as German chancellor after around 16 years, many observers said her shoes would be extremely difficult to fill. Who then could provide the steady hand she did to become Europe’s “leader” in the public mind?
Emmanuel Macron of France? He doesn’t seem to engender the necessary trust even in his home country.
It would be another woman and another German: Ursula von der Leyen, elected President of the European Commission in 2019, whom Time magazine – a publication subject to awarding titles – has just named “the most most powerful in Europe”, although Christine Lagarde, head of the European Central Bank, could claim this honor.
In the face of climate change, a global pandemic and the armed conflict in Ukraine, how has von der Leyen faced and met the challenges?
Time’s story tells how she often lives at her office, sleeping in a 25m² room right next to her office. She must leave, of course, to meet world leaders, visit crisis areas or perhaps have an audience with the pope, which she did on June 10.
And spending time with her family: her husband Heiko, a doctor and member of the noble von der Leyen family, and their seven children.
Ironically, her long hours in Brussels, the seat of the European Union, bring her back to where she was born in 1958. Her father worked for the organization that would become the EU so she spent her childhood in the Belgian capital , where she was already immersed in an international environment at the exclusive European School.
In 1971, the family, also consisting of seven children, moved to a divided Germany where her father was elected as a state representative in the ruling Christian Democratic Union political party. She told Time magazine that growing up as the third of seven children taught her how to balance competing interests. “What I learned early on is that I get better if the group is okay,” she said. “I’m a big believer in constant negotiation.”
These skills are certainly a prerequisite for any leadership position in the troubled EU. And von der Leyen has an extremely difficult position at the head of a cabinet of commissioners who report to the European Parliament. It is empowered to allocate portfolios and reshuffle or dismiss commissioners who together set the political agenda and determine legislative proposals. The commission is the only body that can propose bills to become European legislation.
In addition to the pandemic, climate change and the conflict in Ukraine, von der Leyen regularly faces a series of more “usual” challenges in the complex EU, although if an issue is on her desk, it is not. probably not without consequences.
The past week has seen unprecedented open dissent from senior officials in his cabinet who have opposed his decision to release EU funding for Poland’s pandemic recovery. They fear she is letting Poland off the hook when it comes to upholding the rule of law, a core EU issue that has always been fraught with pitfalls.
Another annoying issue that required his patience and negotiating skills was the European Parliament’s rejection last week of the final Digital Services Act (DSA), landmark legislation that aims to help rein in Big Tech. Due to go through its final vote, the new law was held back because parliamentarians said France, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency for six months, had made unauthorized changes to the text of the legislation.
As the head of administration trying to express Europe’s liberal values while doing real things on the ground, the challenges are all in the day.
Susi Dennison, senior policy researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, notes von der Leyen’s “ability to be a kind of leader in brokering solutions and building consensus among member states.”
Perhaps her ability to embrace diversity was helped by her days at the London School of Economics, which she attended under an assumed name due to kidnapping fears linked to the stature and political positions of his father.
There, she dyes her hair and becomes a follower of punk rock. She adopted the name Rose Ladson and “lived way more than I studied,” she told German newspaper Die Zeit in 2016. Her days in London gave her “an inner freedom” that she still treasures, she told Time magazine.
But she was hardly rebellious for long. Perhaps liberal in her outlook, her life became the very expression of conservative values, meeting her husband in the church choir and becoming a doctor herself while giving birth and raising seven children. The von der Leyens also lived for a time in California.
The cosmopolitan and multilingual context seems tailor-made to help forge a successful international leader. Hardworking, highly educated, religious and liberal-minded, born of a legacy of achievement and success, von der Leyen possesses an impressive array of accomplishments and characteristics.
In these difficult times of disease, climate change and conflict, she has managed to restore her reputation rather than diminish it. Power might not be the right word: maybe von der Leyen is the most crucial person in Europe right now.
As a mother of seven and an adventurous spirit in post-war Europe, it is comforting to know that she will lead the important work ahead.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are seasoned international journalists based in Italy