Ursula von der Leyen as Minister of Defence, 2014. Photo: Dirk Vorderstraße via Wikimedia
Germany’s best-known citizen is, no doubt, its federal Chancellor, Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat who has held the job since 2005. But it is another German woman who is grabbing headlines at the moment: Ursula von der Leyen, currently minister of defence in Mrs Merkel’s government, and nominated this week to be the new president of the European Union Commission.
The EU commission president heads the executive branch, sets the policy agenda and controls a cabinet of commissioners. This is the top job in EU and Mrs von der Leyen (pronounced “lie-in”) would be the first woman – and the first German in more than 60 years – to hold it.
However, many voices, especially in Germany, have been raised against her having it. She has been accused of mismanagement and misspending in her current portfolio (defence is considered the graveyard of political careers), of a “reclusive and defensive management style” and unethical conduct regarding suppliers and consultants. Some think she is simply not up to the job.
But then, is anyone up to the job of leading a Europe that is fading away for lack of the will to reproduce itself? And, anyway, was the incumbent John-Claude Juncker all that capable or scandal-free?
In fact, from the point of view of ordinary mortals, Ursula has a few things going for her.
* First up, she is a mother, and of seven children – a quality that none of her predecessors could boast. (And she is Lutheran, not Catholic.) In a Germany where fertility has been as low as 1.4 children per woman in recent times, and is still well below replacement except among immigrant women, a large family is counter-cultural not to mention patriotic. The von der Leyens may belong to a privileged class and be able to afford domestic help, but not many in their social rank want to share their privileges with a troop of children.
* As family minister for several years (and a doctor by her initial profession) she set about making motherhood and fatherhood easier to combine with employment. Deutsche Welle notes that “she sent clear signals to the political establishment in Berlin. For example, she initiated a parental assistance program (‘Elterngeld’) and oversaw a nationwide expansion of childcare by providing substantial financial support from the German government.” She supports gender equity in the workforce.
Before leaving the subject of family, one is obliged to award her a minus point. According to Politico: “She campaigned for equal marriage for LGBT couples (which Germany legalised in 2017) and drew the ire of her conservative party colleagues after calling for LGBT couples to be permitted to adopt, saying: ‘I know of no study that says that children who grow up with [same-sex parents] fare differently than children who grow up in heterosexual marriages.’” Sorry, Ursula, you have not done your homework here. See ground-breaking study by Mark Regnerus and meta-analyses by Walter R. Schumm and Thomas Schofield, among others.
* For those who value the European Union, her commitment to the European project will count. Politico again: “Born in Brussels where her father [Ernst Albrecht] was “one of the first pan-European civil servants, she speaks fluent French and English, and built up a profile in the early years of her career with a bold commitment to a ‘United States of Europe, modelled on federal states like Switzerland, Germany or the US’.” That might scare others.
* Also: “Many German commentators note the progress made under her current cabinet brief, defence integration. Her diplomatic effort in organising the 2016 Nato mission in the Aegean Sea in response to the refugee and migrant crisis required support from both Greece and Turkey, and is said to have won her admirers in Brussels.”
* And this may be a plus point for some: the Greens don’t like her, perhaps because she has no profile on climate change.
Von der Leyen is one among five people nominated for the top five EU jobs, and they have yet to be confirmed by a vote in the EU Parliament. A couple of the others are regarded as problematic too, but not Christine Lagarde, who has been head of the International Monetary Fund since 2011 and is set to head the European Central Bank.
Lagarde has the advantage of never being a defence minister during her political career in France; she has had finance and trade. And she has handled the IMF well enough to be given two terms. Her domestic circumstances seem not quite as edifying as von der Leyen’s, but as a health-conscious vegetarian who rarely drinks alcohol, and whose hobbies include regular trips to the gym, cycling, and swimming, she is a great role model for a self-indulgent and unhealthy world.
Europe’s troubles, however, go beyond diet and exercise, and much deeper than financial stability or even climate change. Their source is the thinning and breaking of family life through delayed marriage, cohabitation, divorce, too few children – and the consequent eclipse of the meaning of sex. Behind that again is the resentment against Europe’s traditional faith and against – as we see in the rhetoric of environmental catastrophe – humanity itself.
Compared with these fundamental cracks in European culture it’s unlikely that any of the top brass in the EU can do more than put a finger in the dyke. But at least Mrs von der Leyen, her family and her faith are reminders of what can really unite and revitalise Europe. Let’s hope she realises that herself.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.