Profile: Ursula von der Leyen, the guarded German in line for second commission term

European Commission president has had an effective five years that have not been without controversy

Ursula von der Leyen appears poised to secure the backing of the leaders of the 27 EU countries for a second term as European Commission president. Photograph: Nick Gammon/AFP via Getty Images

Ursula von der Leyen, who is on the cusp of a second term in the powerful role as president of the European Commission, is probably best known to many in Ireland for her misstep in the early days of the Gaza war.

After a high profile and at times turbulent five years, the 65-year-old conservative German politician appears poised to secure the backing of the leaders of the 27 EU countries for a second term as commission president. While national leaders discussed their intentions of putting von der Leyen forward for a second term over several hours on Monday, the formal vote to nominate her will likely take place during a two-day summit late next week.

Von der Leyen was born and grew up in Brussels to German parents. Her father was a civil servant in one of the early European institutions in the 1950s. Centre right ideologically, her political home is the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Germany, which sits in the European People’s Party (EPP), alongside parties including Fine Gael.

Getting past EU leaders will be the easy part for von der LeyenOpens in new window ]

She served in former German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet for years, where she was seen as a safe pair of hands. She was the federal minister for family affairs from 2005 to 2009, then minister for labour until 2013, followed by 5½ years as defence minister up until the middle of 2019. Von der Leyen was relatively unknown on the European stage when she was dramatically floated into the mix to become the commission president in 2019.

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During her first term as head of the executive arm of the EU she is generally viewed as having been effective, while at times having knocked into controversy. She is known to keep a very close circle of trusted lieutenants, one of whom is Bjoern Seibert, a German who runs her commission cabinet and wields significant influence in Brussels as a result. Her tendency to concentrate decision-making power within a tight group has led to significant tensions at times with others who feel frozen out.

A perception has also built up of von der Leyen as someone who rarely leaves her commission offices on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont. She is a demanding boss and insists on written briefings being heavy on detail, according to one commission official who has dealt with her requests.

Her biggest policy accomplishment was the “green deal”, an ambitious series of environmental reforms that includes EU commitments to transition towards less fossil fuel-dependent economies, a ban on the sale of new cars with combustion engines from 2035, and binding targets to reverse biodiversity loss.

Von der Leyen played a prominent role during the Covid-19 pandemic to secure access to vaccines for the EU. However, she later came under pressure over the manner in which she negotiated with the chief executive of pharmaceutical company Pfizer, one of the main vaccine producers. The controversy was dubbed “Pfizergate” and has since spun off into several legal cases and investigations, which may yet come back to hurt the commission president.

Undoubtedly the misstep that damaged von der Leyen most for Irish people was her comments in the days after the October 7th attacks in southern Israel by Hamas, which left 1,200 people dead and prompted the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip.

During a trip to Israel von der Leyen offered unqualified support for Israel’s response, which has since seen more than 37,000 Palestinians killed, according to Gaza health authorities, and hundreds of thousands rendered homeless.

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