Ursula von der Leyen profile: Who is proposed new EU Commission president?

German defence minister (60) is seen as a liberal and reliable pair of hands

German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen was attending an away day for the Bundeswehr armed forces on Tuesday, 45 minutes south of Berlin, when her name began circulating as a possible new president of the European Commission.

As a woman and a member of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), part of the European People's Party (EPP), the 60-year-old already ticked two important boxes to head the sprawling EU executive.

In addition, she is trilingual, speaking French and English alongside her native German. Though at home near Hanover, Lower Saxony, she was born in Ixelles in the southern suburbs of Brussels and grew up as the daughter of an influential Lower Saxon politician and later state premier, Ernst Albrecht.

In addition, the so-called Visegrád states – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – were reportedly not opposed to the idea of her appointment.


The appointment would solve one problem for Merkel but caused complications elsewhere. It would end Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann's ambitions of heading the European Central Bank (ECB) and block EPP spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) Manfred Weber from any top job. That would be seen as a betrayal by Weber's colleagues in Bavaria's ruling Christian Social Union (CSU) – Merkel's conservative allies.

“After years of anonymous EU leaders we agreed on the lead candidate system to increase European election legitimacy,” said a CSU source to The Irish Times. “Ignoring the candidates people voted for at the first opportunity would be very difficult to communicate.”

Asked if ditching Weber for Von der Leyen would cause a crisis in Berlin’s ruling grand coalition, the CSU source added: “By no means.”

Medical doctor

Von der Leyen is Lutheran and a medical doctor by training. She married in 1986 and has seven children, the youngest now 20.

Seen as a liberal and reliable pair of hands, she has held three posts at the Merkel cabinet table. As family minister (2005-2009) she boosted funding for childcare, generating controversy in the more conservative wing of her own political camp. As labour and welfare minister (2009-2013) she oversaw a toughening up of the Schröder era reform programme.

Her greatest challenge has been as defence minister since 2013. Her task: to retool and rebuild the Bundeswehr after years of underinvestment and ongoing confusion over its role at home and abroad. It has proven a complex, perplexing and often thankless task – in particular amid growing US pressure on Germany to boost its military spending in line with Nato commitments.

She made several decisions that earned respect within the ranks: agreeing to buy unmanned drones; backing weapons deliveries to Iraqi militias battling Islamic State forces; and adding a new cyber warfare pillar alongside the army, navy and Luftwaffe.

But, now in her sixth year in defence, she is increasingly unpopular over a series of cost overruns on military aircraft, as well as a surge in spending on outside consultants.

Never a close political ally of Merkel, Von der Leyen was once considered a potential reserve chancellor. However, the minister eventually took herself out of the succession stakes, pointing to the four-year age difference between the two women.

It remains to be seen whether the European Parliament will back Von der Leyen as successor to Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin