Germany’s von der Leyen steps down as defence minister to run for EU’s top job

Passionately pro-European, disciplined and ambitious, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen might have seen her political star fade in Berlin but is now aiming for the top job in Brussels.

Germany's von der Leyen steps down as defence minister to run for EU's top job
von der Leyen addresses members of the European Parliament during her application speech. Photo: DPA
On Tuesday, von der Leyen (CDU) announced that she wants to resign from her ministerial position regardless of the outcome of the vote in the EU Parliament.
“Regardless of the outcome, I will resign as Defence Minister on Wednesday,” she announced on Twitter in separate posts in English, French and German.
Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the step, saying that Von der Leyen had decided on a “new stage in her life”.

Once considered a likely successor to Merkel, the mother-of-seven and trained medical doctor has dropped in the domestic popularity stakes in the tough post of overseeing the German armed forces.

Instead, following her surprise nomination by EU leaders, the 60-year-old centre-right politician now hopes to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker and become the first female European Commission president.

The Brussels-born political blueblood and London School of Economics graduate is the only minister to have served with Merkel since the beginning of her marathon reign in 2005 and previously ran the family affairs and labour ministries.

Von der Leyen and Merkel greet each other at the CDU Party Day in Hamburg on December 7th, 2018. Photo: DPA

A life-long high achiever, von der Leyen has at times drawn envy and 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.

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.

A fluent English and French speaker, she has however built a solid network of allies across Europe, crucially including French President Emmanuel Macron, and launched a strong charm offensive in recent days.

Nonetheless, her success is far from assured given widespread anger that EU leaders, after days of backroom wrangling, chose von der Leyen rather than a European parliamentarian who had campaigned for votes.

Von der Leyen faces strong opposition from Social Democrats, Greens and other leftist politicians — especially SPD politicians from her own country.

In a hard-hitting paper handed out in Brussels, the SPD listed reasons they deemed von der Leyen “an inadequate and unsuitable candidate”, among them Germany's poor military preparedness and past accusations of plagiarism in her doctoral dissertation.

Others praise the candidate highly, including the SPD's former interior minister Otto Schily, who labelled her “a highly competent, intelligent, experienced politician who really has all the qualities that are critical for a commission president”.

Underestimated as a woman

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.

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

Von der Leyen visiting Bundeswehr troops in Mali in 2014. Photo: DPA

Von der Leyen has also weathered scandals over far-right extremists within the army, controversial contracts with business consultants and cost over-runs, including for the renovation of a vintage naval vessel.

The minister has said she will resign her portfolio regardless of the outcome of Tuesday's vote “in order to serve Europe with all my strength”.

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 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 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 fought to overhaul parental leave policy to encourage fathers to also take time to care for their children.

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

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

“If she becomes the first woman to lead the European Commission, that will make her proud, but she won't see it through the gender perspective but from the point of view of a politician who wants to solve the real problems.”

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.