The New Face of Europe Takes the Baton From Merkel — But With a Twist

The New Face of Europe Takes the Baton From Merkel — But With a Twist

By Carly Stern

From left: German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte; Merkel's husband, Joachim Sauer; and European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen and her husband, Heiko, arrive for the opening of the annual Bayreuth Festival.


Because Ursula von der Leyen could emerge as the new face of Europe — taking over for Angela Merkel.

By Carly Stern

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In 1977, economics student Ursula von der Leyen had to flee West Germany amid rising fears of communist terrorism. Her family had heard rumors that the Red Army Faction planned to kidnap von der Leyen to extort her father — so like any sensible person, she got lost.

For more than a year, von der Leyen lived under the alias Rose Ladson in London, where she resumed her studies at the London School of Economics. Today, the student who was once forced to escape her home country is the first woman to lead the European Union.

German politician Ursula von de Leyen, 60, was elected president of the European Commission on Tuesday night by just nine votes to replace Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg. The center-right member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has served as minister of defense since 2013, the first woman in Germany to assume the post. As the minister who has stayed beside Angela Merkel since she became chancellor in 2005, von der Leyen was for years talked about as a likely successor. However, her long career has provided her with plenty of ground of her own on which to stand. “The public used to see her as Merkel’s crown princess, but that perception faded away a long time [ago],” says Kai Arzheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Mainz. “Over the last few years, her popularity was shaped by her own actions.”

Von der Leyen single-handedly transformed Germany’s system of parental leave and pushed through major reforms.

Kai Arzheimer, professor of political science, University of Mainz

Even so, von der Leyen could assume the departing Merkel’s mantle in a broader sense — as the face of Europe. “The trust you place in me is confidence you place in Europe, confidence in a united and strong Europe, from east to west, from south to north,” she said in her acceptance speech after securing the five-year term.

Such a speech would have been hard to imagine just a few weeks ago. Von der Leyen was only nominated in early July by heads of state and government in the European Council who could not agree on any of the candidates presented by the Parliament’s political blocs. The move was controversial, as the main candidates were known to voters before the May elections.

Von der Leyen’s key talking points in persuading parliamentarians were about more equal gender representation among European Union commissioners and attention toward violence against women. “If member states do not propose enough female commissioners, I will not hesitate to ask for new names,” she said in a speech to Parliament before the vote. She came out in favor of further delaying Brexit and focused on a “green deal,” in which she proposed a “sustainable Europe investment bank” to harness additional investment in renewable energy and other measures in the next 10 years. She also pledged to make the EU carbon neutral by 2050, the same benchmark the United Kingdom has set for carbon neutrality. 


Von der Leyen was born in Brussels, her father among the initial European civil servants after the European Commission was established in 1958. The family moved to Hannover, Germany, where her father became the CEO of a food company and became involved in local politics. 

In 1986, she married Dr. Heiko von der Leyen. She graduated from Hannover Medical School and worked as a gynecologist. The couple lived in California for four years, during which time Heiko taught at Stanford University and Ursula focused much of her time and energy on raising their seven children.

Von der Leyen, who also earned a master’s in public health, pushed health care, family policy and access throughout her years in office, starting with her election to the Parliament of Lower Saxony in 2003. Today, she advocates for free health care and education for every European child, citing her own experiences as a mother.

She was often ahead of her time in emphasizing incorporating men into “care work” and helping women reintegrate into the workforce after starting families. “Von der Leyen single-handedly transformed Germany’s system of parental leave and pushed through major reforms in very large departments where many political careers have ended,” says Arzheimer. 

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Ursula von der Leyen meets in November with fellow defense ministers at European Union headquarters in Brussels.

Source JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty

She also called attention to poverty among women in Germany. And though von der Leyen was more center-right than Merkel, she positioned herself as a conservative feminist. Her time as defense minister, however, has been less groundbreaking. Critics complained that she had little relevant experience for the job, and some note that she failed to reform the German armed forces. 

At the same time, many remain unimpressed by her supposedly bold steps on climate action that were posited as a priority leading up to the European Commission vote. “Promising carbon neutrality by 2050 might be ‘politically realistic,’ whatever that means,” says Ben Knight, a Berlin-based politics reporter, “but it is futile for the survival of the planet as we know it or the survival of our economy. The only thing that can avert disaster is a wholesale reorganization of the world economy. I don’t think von der Leyen is on board for that.”

Anonymous in London no more, Europe’s new barrier-breaking face will have to get used to the heat.