Ursula von der Leyen: EU’s ‘general’ nears endgame of turbulent first term

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European Commission president is praised for work ethic and response to Covid and Ukraine war, but some see her as aloof

For years, Brussels has been needled by the question: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” The remark, widely attributed (probably wrongly) to the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, epitomises the idea that the EU has many leaders, but no voice on the world stage.

Today many in Brussels think there is someone at the end of the phone line: Ursula von der Leyen, the first female president of the European Commission, recently named by Forbes as the most powerful woman in the world.

In February Von der Leyen was briefly in a Kyiv air raid shelter, before heading to an EU summit with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. March brought a fireside chat with Joe Biden at the White House, in an attempt to smooth out tensions over green subsidies. This week she is joining the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to meet Xi Jinping in Beijing, against a backdrop of deteriorating EU-China relations.

After more than 1,200 days in charge of the commission, which forms and enforces policy for 450 million Europeans, Von der Leyen is in the final third of her term. It has been a tumultuous period: she took office in 2019 with ambitious pledges to tackle the climate emergency, but was soon confronted by a once-a-century pandemic and the biggest war on European soil since 1945.

In previous crises “the EU realised that it is still very much a legislative machine, and there was no headquarters, no general to lead the crisis management”, said one senior EU official. “Now in two consecutive crises, Covid and Ukraine, we have the headquarters and we have the general.”

Von der Leyen begins a typical working day early. She is never snarled up in Brussels traffic because she lives on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont, the commission’s star-shaped headquarters. Her room is modest: a windowless 20 sq metre space, with bed, mini-shower, clothes hanging area and an ironing board propped up in a corner. To cover the costs of the room – a converted restroom never intended as a living space – €18,000 (£15,700) rent is deducted from her salary and housing allowance. (Using EU documents, the Guardian calculated her yearly salary and housing allowance at €401,804, but a commission spokesperson declined to confirm these figures, citing data protection.)

A former medical doctor who also studied at the London School of Economics, the trim 64-year old is renowned for her work ethic and stamina. “You don’t see Ursula Von der Leyen much at receptions in Brussels, at festive occasions, or long dinners, simply because she spends a lot of time at her desk,” said one political ally, the centre-right German MEP David McAllister. “She has an incredible amount of energy at any time of the day or night,” said one EU official. “She is extremely efficient so she will not lose time with small talk just for the hell of it,” observed the Dutch writer Caroline de Gruyter.

Von der Leyen’s tastes are frugal: she is teetotal and eats modestly. She has been a vegetarian for about 15 years, inspired by discussions with her then teenage daughters. She lost the habit of drinking alcohol during her pregnancies – she has seven grownup children.

Weekends are usually spent working in Brussels, with occasional long runs in the luxuriant beech tree Fôret de Soignes, on the south-eastern outskirts of Brussels. But mostly she works. She rarely visits the family home in the village of Beinhorn, Hanover, where she keeps horses, goats and chickens. The chickens are named after German princesses, except one called Angela – perhaps a sideways tribute to her political mentor, Germany’s first female chancellor, Angela Merkel, who brought Von der Leyen into the German government.

In contrast to her predecessor as commission president – Jean-Claude Juncker, a bon vivant always ready with a quip – Von der Leyen avoids speaking off the cuff. She rarely gives interviews, preferring carefully scripted video messages, recorded in English, French and German. Immaculately dressed, she is equally meticulous in her schedule. A meeting with her starts and ends on time.

“She is arguably the best since [Jacques] Delors [the feted commission president who pioneered the EU’s internal market and monetary union],” said Philippe Lamberts, an outspoken Belgian Green MEP who is often a sharp critic of Von der Leyen’s centre-right political family, the European People’s party.

He voted against Von der Leyen as commission president in 2019 because she failed to convince during what he described as a “real disaster” of a hearing with Green MEPs in 2019. Nearly four years later, he is converted. Not only did Von der Leyen deliver on the European green deal – the EU’s flagship plan to tackle the climate emergency – she stuck with it, he said. “If this was just a communication gimmick it would have succumbed to the first blow of Covid. It didn’t,” he said, adding that she holds firm against critics in her centre-right group who see the green agenda as a burden on business.

Every European leader calls Von der Leyen, said De Gruyter. “Because of one crisis after another, there is a lot of demand for concrete solutions. If you want this to go fast you go straight to the commission, so why not go straight to her.”

It could have been very different. Von der Leyen became European Commission president with a majority of only nine in the European parliament. Her own country abstained from supporting her, while one Social Democrat dismissed her as “the government’s weakest minister”. For critics, that view seemed vindicated in the early months of her presidency when Italy was stricken with coronavirus. Governments closed borders and banned exports of critical medical kit to their EU neighbours. The commission looked powerless in the face of a resurgence of every country for themselves. “The commission’s job is to constrain national reflexes at times of crisis,” said Mujtaba Rahman, a former EU official who is now managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group consultancy. “I think Von der Leyen really struggled to do that at the beginning of the pandemic, where you saw a recourse to national responses.”

She has learned on the job, Rahman said, crediting her with the “legacy-creating” €750bn recovery fund to pull the EU’s Covid-battered economies out of recession. Many inside the commission, including critical observers, praise her for the common purchase of vaccines. “She took enormous political risks to organise the purchase of vaccines where there were no vaccines,” said the EU official.

After a shaky start, the EU’s eventual vaccine success inadvertently led to one of the severest rebukes against Von der Leyen, when the commission refused to publish text messages she had exchanged with Pfizer’s chief executive at the height of the pandemic. The EU ombudsman found the commission guilty of maladministration for failing to live up to “reasonable expectations” of transparency. Some insiders are sceptical of her personal vaccine diplomacy, with lingering uncertainty over whether the EU got the best deal. “You can really question whether this is necessary to do this via the Pfizer CEO via direct text messages,” said a second EU official.

While the reviews are mixed on coronavirus, Von der Leyen is credited with getting the big call right on the other life-and-death question – Ukraine. She heeded US intelligence warnings of a Russian invasion, when some EU leaders still wanted to talk to Vladimir Putin, according to the senior EU official. “There were several member states who did not take [US intelligence] seriously,” said the official. Von der Leyen did. According to the source, she instructed officials to begin preparing sanctions against Russia in December 2021, more than two months before the invasion.

In April 2022 she was among the first European leaders to visit Kyiv, and in June she announced Ukraine was a candidate for EU membership, after overcoming sceptics inside the commission as well as national capitals. Even before she made the announcement, the clue was in her outfit: she wore the vivid yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag.

By the first anniversary of the invasion, the EU had managed to scrape through a 10th package of sanctions against Russia. “We are effectively at the very top of the European sanctions ladder and we got there quite quickly, and that’s to VDL’s credit,” Rahman said. “This is one reason why I think the Americans really admire her. The view in the States is that Von der Leyen has really delivered and I think to her credit she has.” McAllister, who chairs the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee, thinks she is “very much responsible for the unprecedented transatlantic cooperation”.

Being on the right side of history does not mean Von der Leyen is the most popular commission president. Her “communication first” leadership has worked well in a crisis but does not serve the EU’s regular legislative agenda so well, suggested one source. The commission is “a bit trigger happy” in throwing out “untested” ideas, the person said, such as overhaul of the EU electricity market or a European sovereignty fund to back green industries, adding: “The [legislative] sausage factory looks pretty crazy right now.”

Her deputies, including seasoned political heavyweights such as Frans Timmermans, who leads on the EU green deal, and Margrethe Vestager, in charge of tech policy and competition law, are widely seen as underused and under consulted. In June 2021 they joined three other commissioners in opposing Von der Leyen’s decision to approve a Covid recovery plan for Poland, citing concerns over the rule of law. It was an unprecedented signal of disapproval from some of the politicians who knew best the weakened state of Poland’s independent judiciary.

One EU official said Von der Leyen had failed to consult colleagues who had years of experience talking to Warsaw and Budapest about the slide in democratic standards in both countries. “When she arrived she didn’t have people around her who knew the rule of law debate at European level. She thought she could be friendly with Poland and Hungary and wasted time.” Yet under pressure from the European parliament, Von der Leyen’s commission has not released a euro cent in disputed recovery funds to Poland or Hungary.

Sophie in ‘t Veld, an advocate of a more robust European parliament, tried to launch a motion of censure against Von der Leyen over the approval of the Polish recovery plan. The Dutch MEP “wholeheartedly supports” Von der Leyen’s work on vaccines and Ukraine but accuses the commission president of “total and utter contempt” for the European parliament. “This commission under her leadership is less available for scrutiny, less responsive and it should be more so in these times when the European Union gets more powers,” the MEP said.

From Berlin, Von der Leyen imported a lone-wolf style of working. She leans heavily on her closest aides, and although people close to Von der Leyen admire her warmth, empathy and readiness for a joke, more distant observers find her aloof. She sidesteps the commissioners who should be her closest allies, ringing up their top officials for a Saturday morning update, or inviting them to a Sunday breakfast to crunch through a problem.

The rockiest relationship is with the incumbent of the office on the other side of the street from the Berlaymont – Charles Michel, the European Council president, who is also vying to carve out a role on the world stage. The two never clicked from the start, but the rift became public following “Sofagate”, when Michel nabbed the only chair at a meeting with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, relegating Von der Leyen to a distant sofa. “It happened because I am a woman,” she told MEPs in an impassioned speech in front of Michel that deepened the rift.

While Von der Leyen won widespread sympathy over Sofagate, even friendly observers think there is too much emphasis on presentation. Her style is very “communication-focused”, said an EU diplomat. “This is not bad in itself but sometimes it could be a problem because you tend to overpromise and issue press releases before things have been adopted or agreed.”

For critics, the presentation-first approach was exemplified by an early meeting with Boris Johnson in June 2020. It was less than five months after Britain had left the EU and time was running out to secure a trade deal. With Covid still a threat, a socially distanced conference call was organised between Johnson and other senior EU officials. Von der Leyen joined the meeting from a television studio in the Berlaymont basement, where she read her notes from a teleprompter, according to a person familiar with the event.

“It was like putting on a show. She wasn’t there in a capacity of negotiation like Juncker would have been, creating a dynamic and engaging in certain ways. It was very much all about appearance,” the person said. The then British prime minister talked a lot, telling the EU leaders to “put a tiger in the tank” of the stalled talks. “In the end I would say it was a pretty shit meeting from her part,” said the source. “If somebody managed to push back on Johnson in that meeting, it was definitely not Von der Leyen.”

A commission spokesperson said the meeting was never intended as a negotiating session but a “stocktaking”, which resulted in negotiators on both sides being tasked with follow-up work.

Supporters argue it was Von der Leyen who “got Brexit done”. She is credited with persuading some of the stricter officials in Brussels to back the Windsor framework with Rishi Sunak that neutralised the Irish protocol dispute.

As she approaches the endgame of her presidency, Von der Leyen has not revealed if she intends to seek a second term. She will need the backing of her EPP group, which is not a given. Some EPP heavyweights privately complain her commission is too economically interventionist, cares too much about borrowing and not enough about “better regulation”, an agenda that often means less regulation. “She is not ideological, she could be anyone’s president,” said one EPP member.

A few EU insiders speculate that she would like to be Nato secretary general, although the post falls vacant in October, a year before her commission mandate ends. De Gruyter expects EU leaders would like her to stay on at the Berlaymont. “I’m sure many member states would like to keep her because she serves their interests so well, but it’s a very complicated process, so it’s very difficult to predict. I think her cards are good on the basis of what she has done in her first term.”

Rahman agreed Von der Leyen already had a “pretty impressive” legacy from her first term. “If you have got the French and Germans on side – which I think you will have – then it becomes very hard to say she shouldn’t get a second term.”

For now it seems unlikely that Von der Leyen will be returning to her chickens in Beinhorn anytime soon.

Source: The Guardian