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Von der Leyen: The Woman Ruling Europe

Konrad Szumiński

Since the beginning of the 21st century, European politics has been shaped, driven and affected by the former German Chancellor, Angela Merkel (2005-2021). She has spearheaded EU policy on the migration crisis, energy as well as the EU’s response to the 2008 financial crash, crowning her as the ‘Queen of Europe’. 

After four consequential terms, she bowed out in 2021, leaving a political vacuum both in Germany and in Europe.

In Germany, the decline in popularity of Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks volumes about the failure to fill Merkel’s shoes. Additionally, the growing chaos in France smashes Macron’s chance to match Merkel as a stabilising figure in Europe. 

The apparent vacuum in the EU, coupled with the economic and migration crises that have gripped the EU Bloc in the past decade, has led to the elevation in prominence of populist leaders, notably in Poland and in Italy, as well as the rise of right-wing populist parties in Germany, France and the Netherlands - populism is evidently spreading in Western Europe. 

Thus, with the populist drum thumping at the gates of Brussels and Strasbourg, geopolitical analysts have watched the rise of Ursula Von Der Leyen, incumbent President of the European Commission, with great intrigue. 

Having spent 14 years in Merkel’s Cabinet, rising to the position of German Defence Minister (2013-2019), she became one of Merkel’s closest allies and a partner in vision and approach. Prior to Merkel winning her 4th term in 2017, Von Der Leyen stressed to a BBC Newsnight reporter that her leader was “very reliable”. 

For those pursuing dynamic political developments, that may feel like an understatement, and yet it is what made Merkel popular and what VDL is trying to replicate in her vision for Europe.

Having become a strong ‘Merkelite’, it comes as no surprise that Von Der Leyen succeeded in her pursuit to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission. It cannot be undermined that VDL is also a skilled and charismatic politician which has allowed her to liven up her role, particularly when covering up the ‘dull extravagance’ of her predecessor. Over  her first term in the job she has provided leadership as well as stability. Following the Aukus and fishing rows, US, British and French relations have been tarnished. Further, the Franco-German power struggle in Europe - particularly on internal energy policy - has also affected the EU. VDL has become a bridge to reconnect Europe with the US, elevating the importance of the EU, especially at the G7 table. Politico, LBC and the telegraph have all reported on the growing relations between POTUS and the EU chief.

Following the announcement of the Windsor Framework in late February, it can be argued that UK-EU relations, frosty after the Johnson premiership, have begun defrosting, not only as a result of consensus over Northern Ireland but also as a result of the conflict in Ukraine. 

In regard to France and Germany, the EU project is something that both Macron and Scholz strongly believe in and so it, as well as its leader, acts almost like a referee in the catfight of the juggernauts. 

VDL has also overseen the acceleration of Ukraine’s accession to the EU and, furthermore, would have been key to the Union’s approach to ending Russia’s chokehold on Europe’s energy.

It is therefore clear that, when faced with a vacuum of European leadership and a populist swing across the continent, Ursula Von Der Leyen has not shied away from confronting populist Governments that have undermined the EU. Thus, when reflecting on the political omnishambles that have surrounded her first term, she has certainly filled the void left by her mentor, idol and admirer. 

As previously mentioned, the Biden Administration has also watched Von Der Leyen impressive leadership over the past few years. Just like the US President, VDL's first term is coming to an end in 2024 and there is speculation whether to run again. 

This has come under particular attention, as reportedly Joe Biden favours Von Der Leyen to replace Jens Stoltenberg as NATO chief, who has been urged to stay in the job for another year. 

Other strong candidates include Canadian Deputy PM Chrystia Freeland, Danish PM Mette Frederiksen and even recently departed Finnish PM Sanna Marin. 

It is arguable that despite being respected and capable politicians and leaders, Von Der Leyen’s extensive experience and record makes her the favourite for the job. 

Now, satirically, whilst pondering the point of moving her office stuff next door, she is also considering whether to lead Europe, or the greatest military alliance in history. 

Image: Getty Images

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