Ursula von der Leyen -- passionate European, Merkel ally

Telegram från AFP / Omni
16 juli 2019, 19.50

Ursula von der Leyen, who was elected Tuesday as the first female European Commission president, is Germany's outgoing defence minister, a medical doctor by profession and a mother of seven.

Passionately pro-European, the Brussels-born political blueblood and London School of Economics graduate speaks fluent English and French and has built a strong network of contacts across the EU.

On the eve of the vote, the long-time ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel and member of her centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) vowed that she was hoping "to serve Europe with all my strength".

A life-long high achiever, von der Leyen, 60, has at times drawn envy and animosity for her best-in-class style, but has played up the persona of a super-mum with iron discipline in her campaign for the top EU job.

The first German to take the post in over half a century, she has pledged to work for a strong and social Europe, to keep close ties with a post-Brexit UK and to propose a "green deal" for a carbon-neutral continent by 2050.

Von der Leyen is the only cabinet minister to have served under Merkel since the beginning of her marathon reign in 2005, initially as family affairs and then as labour minister.

She was long considered a potential successor to Merkel but has seen her political star fade in Germany while running the tough post of defence minister for more than five years.

Overseeing the armed forces, she has weathered a series of scandals, from dealing with right-wing extremists in army ranks, to controversial payments to external consultants and cost blow-outs for defence equipment.

Der Spiegel weekly once dubbed von der Leyen "the soloist" for her go-it-alone style, and a recent opinion poll by Bild am Sonntag newspaper rated her as the second-least popular member of Merkel's cabinet.

Her fortunes changed dramatically two weeks ago when she was named as the surprise nominee for the top EU post after days of wrangling, reportedly proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron.

She long faced strong opposition from Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) and other leftist politicians, who objected especially to the backroom power play that led to her nomination.

Others praised the candidate highly, with the SPD's former interior minister Otto Schily labelling her "a highly competent, intelligent, experienced politician who really has all the qualities that are critical for a commission president".

The new Commission chief was born Ursula Gertrud Albrecht on October 8, 1958 in Brussels, where her father Ernst Albrecht worked as a senior European Commission official, and lived there until age 13.

After her father went on to become the CDU state premier of Lower Saxony, she spent her late teenage years under police protection at a time when leftwing extremists were targeting political and business figures.

The threat forced her to move to London to live in an uncle's flat under the assumed name of "Rose Ladson", and she kept a security detail at her side well into adulthood.

A top-grade student, she studied first economics then medicine, going on to work in a women's clinic.

She interrupted her career to be a housewife in California when her husband, a professor of medicine, won a scholarship to Stanford.

She joined the CDU at age 32 and entered the Lower Saxony parliament, going on to win her first Bundestag seat in 2009.

Von der Leyen has remained an outsider in the traditionally conservative and male-dominated CDU but rose in the Merkel era.

As family affairs minister, she overhauled parental leave to encourage fathers also to take time to care for their children and expanded day care -- policies credited with helping to lift the country's birthrate from a historic low.

In a rare political gamble, she broke party ranks in 2013 to push for a women's quota in corporate boardrooms.

Von der Leyen in 2013 became the first woman to serve as defence minister, a notoriously difficult portfolio given post-war Germany's touchy relationship with military affairs.

"She is used to being underestimated as a woman, but has beaten men throughout her political career," said her biographer Daniel Goffart.

Becoming the first woman to lead the European Commission "will make her proud", he said, adding that "she won't see it through the gender perspective but from the point of view of a politician who wants to solve the big problems."