Thursday, June 20, 2024

The woman at the heart of Europe

These jaunts are no grandstanding indulgence. The EU is in the midst of upheaval. War on the European continent has forced a recasting of its six-decade peace project. Mrs von der Leyen is shaping the response to the challenges buffeting the EU, from missing Russian gas to anaemic defence spending. Its economy, just out of covid-19, is on a new set of tracks, the better to counter America’s protectionist green subsidies, lessen Europe’s over-reliance on China and deal with the imperatives of climate change.

Previous crises that engulfed the bloc, such as the euro-zone miasma a decade ago, had threatened to tear the EU apart. But facing pandemic, then war, a sense of common purpose has helped to give the club a weightiness it has rarely enjoyed. Europe has rallied around its blue-and-gold-star EU flag, a row of which flutter outside the commission’s headquarters in Brussels. Sitting in her cavernous office on its 13th floor, Mrs von der Leyen tells The Economist: “We’ve shown this unity because we’ve understood from the very beginning that this Russian war in Ukraine will change Europe.”

Discreetly, under her leadership, the political fabric of the continent has been rewoven, with far more power flowing to the commission she heads. That the 64-year-old German would do so much to steer that change was once far from obvious: power in Europe is more often wielded by national leaders, starting with those of France and Germany. Her appointment in 2019 had come as something of a surprise. A longtime ally of Angela Merkel, the former chancellor from the same centre-right CDU party, she had survived rather than thrived in the tricky defence brief for five years. The top job in Brussels was a convenient exit ramp; for the first time in five decades a German would sit atop the commission. It was a position the multilingual Mrs von der Leyen seemed suited to: she grew up in Brussels, her father having been a senior EU official in the bloc’s formative years. “I’m very much born European,” she says.

Three quirks amused Eurocrats in her early days. The first was Mrs von der Leyen’s unusual path to power—she studied economics before becoming a medical doctor, then juggling a political career and seven children. The second was her decision to turn part of her Brussels office into a studio to live in, to cram in long days and nights of work (some predecessors had been less diligent). The third was a habit of describing herself from the outset as heading a “geopolitical” commission. Running the EU’s 32,000-strong executive in Brussels is more often the stuff of grinding technocracy, not high politics—think chemicals regulation and tweaking wheat subsidies rather than war and peace.

The claim seems less grandiose nowadays. Covid-19, which hit soon after she took office, provided an early test. Mrs von der Leyen fought to keep barriers between EU countries from re-emerging. Her staff was tasked by national governments with procuring vaccines for 447m Europeans—a task it was ill-prepared for, and pulled off only after costly initial delays.

Mrs von der Leyen speaks of the commission having “to grab the opportunity and to show leadership”. One example was a €750bn ($820bn) pandemic recovery fund, a federalising leap (albeit, she stresses, a one-off event, though others might not agree about that). Cleverly, the money can only be disbursed according to priorities set in Brussels—which has used the fund to bludgeon countries felt to fall short of EU rules. Poland and Hungary, who are deemed to have hobbled their judiciaries, have still not seen any cash.

War on the continent catalysed further changes. The EU responded to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by orchestrating ten rounds of sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s regime, and has delivered some €38bn in financial assistance. It has even, in a radical departure, paid for some €3.6bn-worth of arms, once very much a taboo. Domestically, an energy crisis that once looked to send the EU economy into recession has somewhat abated.

The fighting in Ukraine—and the cutting off of Russian gas that ensued—raised questions about Europe’s reliance on the outside world. Mrs von der Leyen speaks of “resilience”—a concept not too far removed from the “strategic autonomy” preferred by France’s Emmanuel Macron, with whom she has just travelled to China. That trip provided an illustration of tricky power dynamics in Europe. Just before the visit Mrs von der Leyen had warned in a hawkish speech that “China has now turned the page on the era of ‘reform and opening’ and is moving into a new era of security and control”. Officials in Beijing made sure she played second fiddle to the far more doveish French president, for example ensuring that she got less face time with President Xi Jinping.

Those looking for divisions in Europe’s approach to China found it easy to do so. And on his way home, Mr Macron made matters worse by telling reporters that he thought Europe ought not to become a “follower” of America’s, taking its cue from Washington in the event of a crisis over Taiwan. This went down poorly in America where some wondered whether, in that case, America should just leave Europe to deal with Russia on its own.

Whether keeping its lights on, developing weapons or building electric cars, Europe increasingly wants to stand on its own two feet. EU rules that had kept its economies among the most open in the world, dependent on supply chains far outside its borders, are now out of favour. A new economic model with a far bigger role for the state—including the Brussels bureaucracy—is slowly emerging. In part that is a result of the only part of her original agenda to have survived contact with events: Europe is on track to reduce carbon emissions by 55% from 1990 levels by the end of this decade, and has a plausible chance of reaching net zero by 2050.

What might come next? Mrs von der Leyen’s five-year term ends in 2024. Some of her predecessors have stayed on for a decade. Most countries seem minded to keep her around, but the arcane procedures for divvying up top jobs (linked to European Parliament elections in spring next year) could yet trip her up. Rumours she could end up as the head of NATO, also based in Brussels, are probably just that. Asked about her intentions, she yields nothing beyond a seasoned politico’s wry smile.

Mrs von der Leyen has her critics, who accuse her of centralising power in a small team of aides, rather than distributing it among the 27 commissioners dispatched by member states. Others gripe that she merely channels the collective interest of the bloc’s national governments, rather than pursuing some higher European ideal. Or, perhaps, that she has merely stepped into a vacuum caused by an unusually distant relationship between France and Germany—a gap that not even she has managed to bridge.

The twin tragedies of covid-19 and war were freakishly suited to a doctor-turned-defence minister. But it was a challenge that could easily have been fumbled, and it has not been. Keeping Europe united is “a constant work in progress”, she says. It is the source of the EU’s unexpectedly strong influence in recent times—and of her own. “It’s something…you have to work for day after day after day.”

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

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