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EUROPEAN UNION

Who is Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, the surprise candidate set to take the EU’s top job?

Germany's Ursula von der Leyen, freshly nominated to head the European Commission, is a loyal confidante of Chancellor Angela Merkel, most recently serving in the tough post of defence minister.

Who is Germany's Ursula von der Leyen, the surprise candidate set to take the EU's top job?
Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: DPA

Germany's Ursula von der Leyen, freshly nominated to head the European Commission, is a loyal confidante of Chancellor  Angela Merkel, most recently serving in the tough post of defence minister.

The political blue-blood, trained medical doctor and mother-of-seven was long considered a likely successor to Merkel but had seen her domestic political star fade in recent years.

Now the ambitious 60-year-old looks headed for Brussels after emerging as the surprise winner from weeks of European backroom deal-making and power plays.

Crucially, she has the backing of French President Emmanuel Macron, who appreciates her cooperation on Franco-German defence issues at a time of growing rifts between Berlin and Paris.

Brussels-born, fluent in French and English, and with a degree from the London School of Economics, she has cultivated a network of contacts in Europe and across the Atlantic.

A strong proponent of greater German engagement on the world stage and closer EU integration, she has in the past advocated a “United States of Europe”.

A life-long high achiever, Von der Leyen has perhaps drawn the most animosity for her best-in-class style, the persona of a super-mum with iron discipline and a perfect hairdo that some voters find unnerving.

'The soloist'

Von der Leyen is the only Merkel cabinet member to have been there since the beginning in 2005, having run first the family affairs and then the labour ministry.

In 2013 she became Germany's first female defence minister, a notoriously difficult portfolio given post-war Germany's touchy relationship with military affairs and frequent defence equipment failures.

During her term, Germany has deployed troops in missions from Afghanistan to Mali while drawing frequent political fire from US President Donald Trump for what he considers Berlin's insufficient military spending.

In the tough post, von der Leyen has weathered scandals over far-right extremists within the army, controversial contracts with business consultancies and cost over-runs, including for the renovation of a vintage
naval vessel.

She was once dubbed “the soloist” for her go-it-alone style, and a recent poll by Bild am Sonntag newspaper rated her as the second-least popular member of Merkel's cabinet.

Political outsider

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

As the daughter of Albrecht, who went on to become CDU state premier of Lower Saxony, she spent her late teenage years under police protection at a time when far-left 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 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 when her husband, a professor of medicine, won a scholarship to Stanford.

Then 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.

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

She once advocated that police team up with internet service providers to block child pornography – a plan critics charged would create an online system of censorship, or “Zensur” in German, earning her the nickname
“Zensursula”.

Like several other German politicians, she has faced accusations of plagiarism in her doctoral dissertation, but survived politically when no serious misconduct was found.

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EUROPEAN UNION

The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary

The euro on Saturday marked 20 years since people began to use the single European currency, overcoming initial doubts, price concerns and a debt crisis to spread across the region.

The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary
The Euro is projected onto the walls of the European Central Bank in Brussels. Photo: Daniel Rolund/AFP

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen called the euro “a true symbol for the strength of Europe” while European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde described it as “a beacon of stability and solidity around the world”.

Euro banknotes and coins came into circulation in 12 countries on January 1, 2002, greeted by a mix of enthusiasm and scepticism from citizens who had to trade in their Deutsche marks, French francs, pesetas and liras.

The euro is now used by 340 million people in 19 nations, from Ireland to Germany to Slovakia. Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are next in line to join the eurozone — though people are divided over the benefits of abandoning their national currencies.

European Council President Charles Michel argued it was necessary to leverage the euro to back up the EU’s goals of fighting climate change and leading on digital innovation. He added that it was “vital” work on a banking union and a capital markets
union be completed.

The idea of creating the euro first emerged in the 1970s as a way to deepen European integration, make trade simpler between member nations and give the continent a currency to compete with the mighty US dollar.

Officials credit the euro with helping Europe avoid economic catastrophe during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Clearly, Europe and the euro have become inseparable,” Lagarde wrote in a blog post. “For young Europeans… it must be almost impossible to imagine Europe without it.”

In the euro’s initial days, consumers were concerned it caused prices to rise as countries converted to the new currency. Though some products — such as coffee at cafes — slightly increased as businesses rounded up their conversions, official statistics have shown that the euro has brought more stable inflation.

Dearer goods have not increased in price, and even dropped in some cases. Nevertheless, the belief that the euro has made everything more expensive persists.

New look

The red, blue and orange banknotes were designed to look the same everywhere, with illustrations of generic Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture to ensure no country was represented over the others.

In December, the ECB said the bills were ready for a makeover, announcing a design and consultation process with help from the public. A decision is expected in 2024.

“After 20 years, it’s time to review the look of our banknotes to make them more relatable to Europeans of all ages and backgrounds,” Lagarde said.

Euro banknotes are “here to stay”, she said, although the ECB is also considering creating a digital euro in step with other central banks around the globe.

While the dollar still reigns supreme across the globe, the euro is now the world’s second most-used currency, accounting for 20 percent of global foreign exchange reserves compared to 60 percent for the US greenback.

Von der Leyen, in a video statement, said: “We are the biggest player in the world trade and nearly half of this trade takes place in euros.”

‘Valuable lessons’

The eurozone faced an existential threat a decade ago when it was rocked by a debt crisis that began in Greece and spread to other countries. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus were saved through bailouts in return for austerity measures, and the euro stepped back from the brink.

Members of the Eurogroup of finance ministers said in a joint article they learned “valuable lessons” from that experience that enabled their euro-using nations to swiftly respond to fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.

As the Covid crisis savaged economies, EU countries rolled out huge stimulus programmes while the ECB deployed a huge bond-buying scheme to keep borrowing costs low.

Yanis Varoufakis, now leader of the DiEM 25 party who resigned as Greek finance minister during the debt crisis, remains a sharp critic of the euro. Varoufakis told the Democracy in Europe Movement 25 website that the euro may seem to make sense in calm periods because borrowing costs are lower and there are no exchange rates.

But retaining a nation’s currency is like “automobile assurance,” he said, as people do not know its value until there is a road accident. In fact, he charged, the euro increases the risk of having an accident.

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