What to Know About Ursula von der Leyen, the Surprise Choice and First Woman Nominated for One of Europe’s Top Jobs

After days of difficult negotiations, European leaders have put forward their nominations for the EU’s top jobs on Wednesday, nominating two women for the leadership roles.

Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, will replace the Italian Mario Draghi as President of the European Central Bank and will become the first woman in history in the role.

The German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen is set to replace Jean Claude Juncker as the E.U.’s commission president. If voted by a majority at the European Parliament, she will also be the first woman in history to hold the job.

Von der Leyen is a centrist and a loyal ally of Angela Merkel and her nomination is seen as a victory for the German chancellor. She’s less well known internationally than Lagarde and is seen as somewhat of a surprise nomination. This is will be her first E.U. position but the role, one of Europe’s most powerful, would put her front and center in trade deals as well as proposing and enforcing E.U. rules. So, who is Ursula von der Leyen?


EU Parliament

Who is Ursula von der Leyen?

The 60-year-old gynecologist only started her political career in her early 40s. As well as Germany, she has lived in Belgium, the U.K. and the U.S., and speaks fluent French and English.

Van der Leyen has not held an E.U. job before, but Brussels is a very familiar place for her. As the daughter of a European Commissioner (back when the E.U. was the European Economic Community), she was born in the Belgian capital and spent most of her childhood there.

She studied economics at two German universities and at the London School of Economics but never graduated. Instead she went on to study medicine in Hanover, and later earned a masters degree in public health. She lived in California for a few years while her husband, a professor of medicine, joined the faculty at Stanford University.

In 1990 she joined Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party (CDU). After climbing through the ranks in the regional government of Lower Saxony, she joined the cabinet of Merkel’s first government in 2005 as minister for Family, Seniors, Women and Youth. During that time, Von der Leyen, a mother of seven, improved maternity and paternity pay rights.

She continued to work with the German chancellor throughout her almost 14-year leadership. In 2009 Van der Leyen moved to the Labor Ministry, before becoming the first female defense minister in 2014.

What will her responsibilities be as European Commission president?

As long as she is elected by a simple majority in the European parliament, Von der Leyen will become the bloc’s 13th commission president for the next five years. The job, one of the most powerful in Europe, involves leading the Union’s most important institution, made up of 28 commissioners, to set the bloc’s policy agenda. As the E.U.’s executive branch, the Commission is sometimes dubbed the civil service, or the government of the E.U.

The role is sometimes confused with the European council president, who represents the E.U. on the world stage and chairs the European council, made up of the 28 heads of state that define the E.U.’s political direction and priorities.

One of Van der Leyen’s top challenges as commission president will be overseeing Brexit. As a European integrationist she has previously lamented the U.K.’s decision to leave the E.U. In an interview with Berliner Morgenpost last year she said Brexit “is a loss for everyone”.

As the Commission President, Von der Leyen will also represent the Commission at G7 and G20 summits. Much like Merkel, her relationship with Donald Trump is likely to be difficult. In an interview with Der Spiegel last year she implied Trump was intimidated by Merkel because she is a powerful woman. “A woman like Angela Merkel, a globally admired head of government with many years of experience has probably not features in his world view before,” she said.

Her predecessor, the Luxembourg national Jean-Claude Juncker, was able to overcome his differences with Donald Trump, and said he “liked him as a person”.

Is everyone happy with her nomination?

Von der Leyen was a surprise choice for the position. It was the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, who first suggested she lead the Commission, after several other candidates, including Dutch social democrat Franz Timmermans who had appeared to be the favorite, were rejected.

Angela Merkel announced on Tuesday that Von der Leyen had received “strong backing from EU leaders.” Her reputation in Germany, however, is not as good as it is abroad. She has been criticized for her role as defense minister, with a member of her own party saying: “It’s good for the army that she is going.”

Former European Parliament president Martin Schulz, criticized Von der Leyen on Twitter, saying she is “the weakest minister in the government,” but that “apparently such a performance suffices to become head of the Commission.” Germany’s Green Party, which came second in the May 26 European elections, is threatening to veto her nomination in the European Parliament.

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