Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen is slated to lead the EU’s executive for five years. A model centrist liberal politician with a dubious record of overseeing Germany’s troubled military, she’s facing rough waters to navigate.
The long-serving German defense chief has all of a sudden come to the forefront as a future head of the European Union’s executive branch. That might be a little unexpected, as she was not even on the list of potential candidates until recently. Yet, after marathon debates the European leaders agreed that she would be the best fit for the position previously held by Jean-Claude Juncker.
Yet, her ministerial record is far from flawless. Over the past six years, during which von der Leyen headed the Defense Ministry, Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, have become a steady source of news about planes that can’t fly, tanks that break down, and vessels that are unfit for maritime operations.
Dozens of assault rifles and pistols, as well as tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, have simply been stolen from the Bundeswehr on von der Leyen’s watch. The year 2014 – her second year in office – saw the biggest amount of equipment go missing, resulting in the loss of 21 weapons and more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition.
Despite boosting Germany’s defense expenditure from some $38 billion to almost $50 billion over her tenure, she still did not quite succeed in modernizing the German armed forces. In 2018, it was reported that her ministry had still failed to find enough money to fund a long-awaited modernization of the Puma infantry fighting vehicles, while the bulk of the freshly purchased new hardware is not ready for service.
Von der Leyen also struggled to replenish the Bundeswehr’s ranks as it has been facing a personnel shortage ever since the abolition of conscription in 2011. This situation prompted the military to come up with increasingly unconventional methods of resolving the issue, ranging from a controversial intensive social media campaign aimed at teenagers to suggestions involving the recruitment of people from other EU states.
This projection of power comes at a cost, of course. German soldiers often return from foreign missions physically or mentally crippled, as was recently reported by the German daily, Bild.
Under her watch, Germany also agreed to become a key troops provider for NATO’s ‘Enhanced Forward Presence’ – a military buildup in Eastern Europe justified by Russia’s alleged ‘assertiveness.’ Moscow sees hundreds of additional NATO troops on its doorstep as an aggressive infringement on its national security and a breach of the spirit of the tacit agreement it had with the bloc after end of the Cold War.
In 2013, she campaigned, although unsuccessfully, for a statutory quota on women in supervisory boards of German companies, which would force businesses to have at least 40 percent women on their boards by 2023. She also supported equal adoption rights for same-sex couples.
During her tenure as labor minister, von der Leyen lobbied for lower barriers to immigration, arguing that Germany needs a larger workforce. Two years later, at the height of the refugee crisis, she lashed out at the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for his restrictive asylum policies by saying that his actions were “not acceptable” and violated “the European rules.”
She is also a strong proponent of deep European integration. In 2011, she said she would like to see the emergence of a “United States of Europe” built on the example of Germany or the US, which are both federal states. In 2015, she reaffirmed her commitment to that idea by saying that “perhaps not my children, but then my grandchildren will experience a United States of Europe.”
Von der Leyen’s appointment to the position of the EU Commission head is yet to pass through the European Parliament. But is she a person who can steer the union in the time of Brexit, the rising popularity of nationalism, and what some see as a global decline of neoliberalism?