Ursula von der Leyen: Merkel ally nominated for EU top job

Ursula von der Leyen’s name is unlikely to have cropped up in early conversations as European leaders wrangled over the best candidate to replace Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

A long-time close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany’s defence minister is not well-loved by its armed forces and her record is not without its failures.

And yet, she has emerged from the shadows as the EU member states’ nominee for the top job, after initial compromise deals collapsed.

If successful – her nomination requires parliamentary approval – Mrs von der Leyen would be the first woman to take on the Commission presidency, with responsibilities including proposing new EU laws, enforcing the bloc’s rules and handling trade deals.

Born in Brussels, her family moved to Germany when she was 13. She studied economics at London’s LSE and medicine in Hanover before going into politics and she is fluent in English and French.

A close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, she has been a member of Mrs Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) since 2005.

Now 60, Mrs von der Leyen is the mother of seven children, highly unusual in a country where the average birthrate is 1.59 children per woman.

She is seen as a staunch integrationist, backing closer military co-operation in the EU and highlighting earlier this year the “potential Europe has to unify and to promote peace”.

Her appointment as German defence minister in 2013 was unexpected and followed three months of coalition talks between the CDU and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

As defence minister in the EU’s most industrialised and populous country, she has argued for Germany to boost its military involvement in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).

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However, her tenure in the defence post has been filled with incident.

In recent years, a litany of stories have exposed inadequacies in Germany’s armed forces, from inoperable submarines and aircraft to shortages of personnel.

A report published last year highlighted the shortfalls, saying they were “dramatically” hindering Germany’s readiness for combat. It said that no submarines or large transport planes were available for deployment at the end of 2017.

Last week, two German air force jets were involved in a mid-air collision during a military exercise over north-eastern Germany.

 

While her appointment was initially seen as a fresh start for a German ministry beset by problems, Mrs von der Leyen was last year questioned as part of an investigation into spending irregularities.

Her defence department was accused of awarding questionable private contracts to consultants that were said to be worth millions of euros.

She later admitted that a number of errors were made in allocating contracts and that new measures were being implemented to prevent it happening again.