It’s likely that, a couple of weeks ago, you’d never heard the name Ursula von der Leyen.
President of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive branch and most powerful institution, is not a job that enjoys the fame or the grandeur of a national leader. So if your name’s appearing in the media, chances are, something’s probably gone very wrong.
The EU’s unedifying spat with the United Kingdom over Covid-19 vaccines has dragged von der Leyen and her management style into the spotlight.
After Brussels got jittery that its vaccination program was lagging behind, thanks to a shortage of doses, the Commission proposed placing export controls on vaccine manufacturers, meaning the EU could monitor — and potentially prevent — vaccines leaving the bloc.
As part of this proposal, the Commission said that those controls could be applied to vaccines going from the Republic of Ireland (part of the EU) into Northern Ireland (part of the UK).
Critics immediately panned Brussels for even toying with the idea of placing restrictions on the Irish border, for fear it could lead to the return of sectarian, cross-border violence on the island of Ireland.
A series of hurried, worried phone calls took place between European capitals who had not been consulted on this move — including, bafflingly, Dublin.
EU diplomats and officials in Brussels were embarrassed by what appeared to be a unilateral threat from the Commission to the UK, a sovereign nation, and a clear risk to civil society in Northern Ireland — a weird flex for an institution which purports to promote and protect peace and civility.
Embarrassment turned to anger when von der Leyen and her team tried to lay the blame on her executive vice president, Valdis Dombrovskis.
The spat has been temporarily resolved, but there is lingering anger aimed at the Commission for threatening to take such dramatic measures. Naturally, much of that anger has been aimed at the head of the institution herself.
Ever since the vaccine spat, von der Leyen has been under an abnormal level of scrutiny — even for someone holding such powerful office — and plenty of critics have been more than happy to draw comparisons between her perceived failures in Berlin and Brussels.
Some believe the reason so many have been happy to take potshots at her is down to jealousy of her privileged background.
Von der Leyen — Germany’s former defense minister — is not your typical Eurocrat. Her father was a very powerful politician, serving as Prime Minister of the German state of Lower Saxony and as one of the first European civil servants.
“She belongs to our political elite,” says Erich Vad, a former military policy advisor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, and a close ally of the German leader. “Not only is she from an upper-class background, but she was also one of Angela Merkel’s favorites.”
“In German politics, many will have been jealous of her and that can make working in Berlin very difficult,” Vad explains.
Whether people are jealous or not, there are comparisons to draw between her handling of scandals as defense minister and of the pandemic.
In 2013, when she was appointed to the role, von der Leyen inherited armed forces in need of reform.
“She wanted to make the German forces relevant for the 21st century by making it easier for women and people with families to serve,” says Sophia Besch, a Berlin-based senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.
“She wanted to root out soldiers who had sympathies for far-right politics and overhaul how the armed forces spent its budget,” Besch explains. “The problem was, she picked fights with lots of senior figures and became unpopular with the troops and chain of command.”
Von der Leyen was widely criticized for spending hundreds of millions of euros on private contractors to help with her reforms. While she was personally cleared of any wrongdoing by German lawmakers, she acknowledged that things had gone wrong, blaming the failures on her subordinates.
In 2017, Germany’s military intelligence service reported 275 suspected cases of right-wing extremism in the forces. The cases included soldiers involved in planning violent attacks and owning Nazi memorabilia.
At the time, von der Leyen enraged the military’s senior command by saying she intended to address the “burning issues” of “where leadership and accountability have failed.”
Long-term observers of von der Leyen recognize this playbook and have been faintly amused to see the strategy of blame and fix repeat itself during the vaccine spat.
“Her style of governing was always to create a tight circle of loyalists around her,” says a former colleague who still works for the German government. “They protected her when scandals broke by deflecting blame and placing her at the front of trying to fix whatever has gone wrong.”
German lawmaker Fritz Felgentreu, from the Social Democratic Party, who serves on the parliamentary defense committee, takes a cynical view of this approach to public relations.
“I am not sure she was a great defense minister or even that interested in the armed forces,” says Felgentreu. “I think she wanted the job to make her case that she could succeed Merkel.”
“Defense is one of the hardest government jobs and it has ended the careers of many before her,” he adds. “I suppose from her perspective, if she could make a success of it, she could go on to do anything.”
Whether von der Leyen was a successful defense minister or not depends largely on who you ask.
Some think she bravely took on the top brass of the military and achieved many of her reforms; others believe that ambition and obsession with her personal brand hampered her ability to do the job.
Von der Leyen’s admirers suggest that the hostility towards such an accomplished leader is driven in some part by the fact she is a woman.
“I look at the criticisms of her and think if she were a man, they wouldn’t call her a control freak but a strong leader,” says Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian politician who leads the European Parliament’s Green caucus.
Senior CDU figures agree. Many believe that von der Leyen is the victim of both a European center-right political culture that is still dominated by men, and a German military culture that is still misogynistic.
“We were all shocked when Merkel nominated her for Germany’s commissioner. Delighted for her, but shocked,” one German defense official told CNN. “It made sense, as she’d done a difficult job reasonably well but, my God, she had taken a credibility hit.”
Von der Leyen was a surprise choice for her current job — not least because she wasn’t even nominated for it initially.
In the summer of 2019, the EU’s complicated process for electing a Commission president had become deadlocked, with the 27 member states unable to agree on any of the candidates on the table.
Then French President Emmanuel Macron had an idea.
She might not have been a Brussels insider, but von der Leyen embodied Macron’s vision for Europe’s next chapter.
She shared Macron’s ambitions for a Europe that could throw its weight around on the world stage. She supported a common defense policy and greater integration.
The optics were also excellent for Merkel’s legacy: She had secured not just the first German president of the Commission, but also the first female president.
Entirely by accident, von der Leyen became that most valuable asset in European politics: the Franco-German compromise. It’s a long-standing rule in Brussels that if you want to get anything done, you have to get Paris and Berlin to agree on it.
Von der Leyen’s actions since becoming the biggest fish in Brussels won’t have surprised anyone who has done their homework.
“When she initially tried to win support in Parliament, she came with a team of people from Berlin who were clearly close collaborators from her time in the German government,” says Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch, liberal member of the European Parliament.
“She seems to have a very top-down, micro-managing style,” in ‘t Veld adds. “Commissioners don’t seem to have a lot of freedom. I do think it’s prone to risks, as we saw with the vaccines row.”
Diplomats representing member states agree with this view. “I don’t think she talks to many people outside of her core group, even including people in the Commission,” one says.
But others in Brussels see von der Leyen as a breath of fresh air, and share Macron’s admiration for her.
“She is very impressive, especially as she embraced the vital need for the Green transition,” says Lamberts, the leader of the European Parliament’s Green caucus. “She wants to be properly across the detail of what she is talking about.”
“Some people may find it frustrating, because it means each meeting with her is on a specific subject,” he says. “But it means we can talk seriously about getting her ambitious agenda through Parliament.”
Von der Leyen’s agenda for the EU is certainly aspirational. Its various themes — tackling climate change, promoting democracy and taking control of Europe’s security — have a common thread: Europe as a geopolitical power in its own right.
Whether it’s taking a lead on climate change through her European Green Deal or convincing member states that Europe needs to consolidate its defense strategy to deal with threats from Russia, von der Leyen’s ambition for Europe is more overtly geopolitical than any of her predecessors.
It is notable that a German politician is so in favor of increasing Europe’s defense capabilities. Back in Berlin, politicians will generally do anything to avoid advocating greater defense spending.
“She knows that the German political class is reluctant to appear hawkish on military issues,” says Vad. “In Brussels, she can push an agenda with France and others that wouldn’t work in Berlin.”
In Germany, admirers and critics alike wonder how well-suited von der Leyen’s lofty, highly political style of leadership is to running a clunky, bureaucratic institution like the European Commission — especially in the middle of a global health crisis.
While much of Europe was stunned at the Commission’s threat to the UK and Northern Ireland, many who knew her in Berlin found the whole chapter — including her subsequent attempt to deflect the blame — consistent with everything they knew about her style of politics and obsession with controlling her public image.
The question many now ask is how much damage has been done to her reputation, and what impact it might have on her broader agenda, once the pandemic is behind her.
Talking to former colleagues and current European officials, the word that repeatedly comes up is “ambition.”
Cathryn Cluver Ashbrook, executive director of the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship at the Harvard Kennedy School, believes that the scale of von der Leyen’s ambition is complimented by enormous self-confidence.
“You look at this woman, she was a physician, she had seven children, got to the top of German politics in a party that — despite having had Merkel as leader for over a decade — is still quite misogynistic,” she says.
The other word that comes up often is “charm.”
“She has a funny kind of charm,” says Vad. “It’s not very warm, but she is cool and composed and people generally wanted to work with her. The confidence is really obvious and quite comforting.”
Cluver adds that, unlike most German politicians, von der Leyen is comfortable talking to her foreign counterparts and understands geopolitics in a way that is uncommon in Berlin.
“It’s not just that she reads the nuance of international relations well, she can also express herself clearly and calmly in English and French,” Cluver says. “Her vision and her preparation give her the stature of a capable global leader who can negotiate with heads of state at eye level.”
Whether these qualities can help her ride through the fallout of the pandemic is yet to be seen.
There is no doubt that Europe’s initial response to coronavirus fell short of the mark. Hospitals in major European countries were completely overwhelmed, while member states shut their borders, blaming one another for not containing the spread.
Although health care is fully controlled by member states, it was von der Leyen’s Commission that coordinated essential supplies and arranged procurement programs for PPE, ventilators and vaccines.
Of course, there have been failures in all of these areas, though even diplomats who are critical of von der Leyen accept that she is a useful scapegoat for national leaders who dropped the ball spectacularly at the start of the pandemic.
It wasn’t long ago that the very idea of a European president was openly ridiculed.
The EU, as it was originally envisaged, was about economic cooperation, not creating a superstate.
In 2021, it might not be a sovereign state, but decades of closer integration mean Brussels has accrued global influence normally reserved for big nation states.
And for the first time in its history, the EU has someone at its helm who wants to leverage that influence to create something that sounds an awful lot like a global superpower.
But von der Leyen has a mountain to climb before she can put this pandemic behind her and get on with her agenda for Europe.
The danger she and her allies face is that legitimate criticism of how she’s handled the greatest crisis the EU has ever faced has killed a lot of goodwill in Brussels — and made her job post-Covid a lot harder.