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Controversial at home, lauded abroad: Ursula von der Leyen to head EU Commission

Frederick Florin, AFP | Ursula von der Leyen speaks in Strasbourg on July 16.

The European Parliament confirmed Ursula von der Leyen as EU Commission president in a secret ballot on Tuesday. She succeeds Jean-Claude Juncker to become the first woman to head the commission, which oversees policies for 500 million Europeans.

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Von der Leyen received 383 of 747 votes, surpassing the 374 needed to secure the presidency. There were 22 abstentions and one blank vote cast.

Germany's defense minister emerged as the favourite to head the European Commission at the 11th hour of an epic EU emergency summit on July 2. The surprise announcement came after weeks of intense wrangling between EU leaders, which, until the final hours of a three-day summit, had centered on three completely different candidates: German conservative Manfred Weber, Dutch Socialist Frans Timmermans and Danish liberal Margrethe Vestager.

Von der Leyen’s last-minute nomination saved EU leaders from having to hand over the crucial pick to the EU Parliament but resulted in them circumventing the so-called “spitzenkandidaten” process, a system in which the main party blocs in the European Parliament nominate their lead candidates.

To the frustration of many lawmakers, von der Leyen was also an EU institution outsider and widely seen as someone chosen from behind closed doors, a compromise between French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Once seen as Merkel successor

Von der Leyen, 60, was born in Brussels as one of eight children to Ernst Albrecht, one of Europe’s first civil servants. When she was 13, the family moved to Germany, where von der Leyen went on to study economics at the University of Göttingen. In 1978 she was forced to spend more than a year in hiding in London after her family learned that the far-left militant group, the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang, planned to kidnap her in order to extort her father. While in London, von der Leyen lived under the fake name “Rose Ladson” and studied at the London School of Economics.

In 1979 she returned to Germany, where she trained as a doctor and went on to work in a women’s clinic in Hanover until she and her husband, Professor Heiko von der Leyen, started a family. Throughout much of the 1990s she took a break from her career to be a stay-at-home mum to care for the couple’s seven children. During this time, the family also spent four years in Stanford, California.

After returning to Germany, von der Leyen got involved in local politics. In the early 2000s she joined Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) party. When Merkel took office in 2005, she joined the federal cabinet as a family affairs minister, and between 2009 and 2013 she worked as a labour and social affairs minister. Von der Leyen is the only minister to have served continuously in Merkel’s government and was long seen as the likely successor to the chancellor.

In 2013, von der Leyen was appointed Germany’s first female defence minister, but problems involving failing army equipment and shortcomings within military training quickly saw her popularity plummet. Her reputation received an even bigger blow when the defence ministry was accused of ignoring the public procurement process when allocating multimillion-euro contracts to external companies, including to the firm where her son works. A recent poll by Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper showed that von der Leyen was the second-least-popular member of Merkel’s cabinet.

On Monday she said she would resign from her defence ministry post no matter what the EU decided.

Ursula von der Leyen's rise to top EU post

Shoring up support in Brussels

Internationally, however, von der Leyen  – who speaks fluent French and English  – has built up a strong profile advocating greater EU integration, pushing for what she calls the "United States of Europe".

Her stance seems to have impressed French President Macron in particular, who has repeatedly praised her for having “the DNA of the European community” and lauded her for her cooperation on Franco-German defence issues.

On the eve of EU lawmakers voting on her nomination for the commission's top post, von der Leyen attempted to shore up support by announcing a raft of economic, environmental and social reforms.

In letters to lawmakers, von der Leyen pledged to back a guaranteed EU minimum wage as well as an unemployment benefit scheme. She also said she would advocate more flexibility in the interpretation of EU budget rules. In addition, she said she would seek a cut in EU carbon emissions of up to 55 percent by 2030 and promised an overhaul of the bloc’s migration and foreign policies.

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