E.U.’s Top Pick: Too Pious for Feminists, Too Feminist for Conservatives

BERLIN — She is a gynecologist with seven children who knows just about everything about fighter jets. She says grace before dinner and believes in gay adoption. She loves the United States and dreams of a United States of Europe someday.

Some feminists are annoyed by her piety. Most conservatives are annoyed by her feminism.

“That woman,” they sigh.

That woman is Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defense minister and a longtime ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who this week was unexpectedly nominated as the next president of the European Commission, the European Union’s powerful executive body.

If confirmed by the European Parliament later this month, she will be the first woman to hold the top job in the 28-nation bloc. For now, the outcome of that vote has been clouded by more than the usual grumblings about the lack of transparency in the bargaining that produced her nomination.

In the juggernaut of horse trading over the European Union’s top jobs, Ms. von der Leyen emerged as the surprise winner from days of back-room haggling, a qualified but compromise candidate to break what threatened to become an insurmountable deadlock.

Her selection has met intense criticism at home, where, having served 14 years alongside Ms. Merkel, and more than five in Germany’s unloved ministry of defense, Ms. von der Leyen was not particularly popular.

Nevertheless, almost everyone agrees on one thing.

“Her European credentials are rock-solid,” said Nathalie Tocci, special adviser to Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, and the director of the Rome-based International Affairs Institute.

Five-foot-three, the daughter of a German politician who worked in the European institutions at the founding stage, Ms. von der Leyen, 60, was born in Brussels and grew up speaking French and English.

It was in school that she said she developed “a lifelong internal love for the phenomenon that is Europe.”

At the height of Europe’s debt crisis, Ms. von der Leyen argued in favor of closer political union, even as many in her country shrunk back from the idea of a greater federalization of debt.

Later, as defense minister, she urged for an ambitious integration of national defense structures and ultimately a “European Army,” which remains a distant dream.

“My aim is a United States of Europe — along the lines of the federal states of Switzerland, Germany or the U.S.A.,” she told the German magazine Der Spiegel in 2011.

In 2016, she repeated this vision in another interview: “I imagine the Europe of my children or grandchildren not as a loose union of states trapped by national interests.”

By putting her name forward, Europe’s heads of state have sent a clear signal, said Guntram Wolff of Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank. “The message is: We don’t want to appease the populists,” he said. “We don’t want a half-hearted Europe; we want a courageous Europe.”

But others warn that the rise of nationalism threatens European cohesion and has made the prospect of surrendering sovereignty on sensitive issues like taxation and national security even harder. People are fearful of losing their national identities and European integration needs to be mindful of that.

Ms. von der Leyen, who once hosted a Syrian refugee in her home, acknowledges this.

“You can’t win against nationalism with internationalism,” she told The New York Times in January. “You need the nation, too.”

At a time when concerns about social injustice and fears of migration have fueled populist and nationalist movements across Europe, Ms. von der Leyen brings an intriguing mix of conservative and liberal values to the table.

Her supporters say she was a transformative family minister who gave paid parental leave to German men and lobbied hard for boardroom quotas.

Later, as defense minister, they note, she fought hard for military budget increases and ultimately oversaw an expanding role for German troops, from Mali to Lithuania.

Her critics fault her for failing to sufficiently modernize Germany’s military. They also point to a parliamentary commission that is currently investigating procurement practices in her ministry. She herself may have to testify later this year.

But as Ulrike Franke, a defense expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, explained, Ms. von der Leyen “came into a difficult job in a difficult ministry at a difficult time.” She added, “That the budget didn’t increase quite as much as she was hoping for, and as many external voices demanded, was largely outside her control.”

Despite her detractors, Ms. von der Leyen commands a striking level of support from very different quarters, even in a fragmenting Europe.

Her outspoken European idealism seems to align less with her own more careful chancellor than with President Emmanuel Macron of France, who has grown increasingly frustrated with Berlin’s reluctance to help him fulfill his vision of deeper European integration.

In fact, Ms. Merkel has made it no secret that the nomination was not her idea, while Mr. Macron, who put forward Ms. Von der Leyen’s name, was visibly delighted.

So, apparently, were Polish nationalists, often fiercely anti-German and euroskeptic, who have come to see her as a staunch ally in the standoff with Russia and respect her traditional family values.

“She is a conservative and she is knowledgeable about national security, which plays well in Eastern Europe,” said Ms. Tocci, who has experienced Ms. von der Leyen close-up in countless meetings.

“But she also has a background as social affairs minister, which matters at a time when the European Union needs to find a way to get closer to its citizens,” Ms. Tocci added.

Ms. von der Leyen was a minister in Lower Saxony when Ms. Merkel brought her to Berlin in 2005. She quickly became a national star, overtaking many in her party who had served years in hopes of a similar career vault.

Her name was once floated as a possible federal president or even a successor of Ms. Merkel herself. But her appeal has waned over time, at least in Germany, where an opinion poll by public broadcaster ARD found that 56 percent of respondents did not think she was a good choice for the job of Europe’s top bureaucrat.

“If you’re a woman and you trying to get things done, you’re going to make enemies,” Ms. Tocci said.

Indeed, Ms. von der Leyen is no stranger to sharp and sometimes very personal criticism. Some of Ms. von der Leyen’s most vocal critics have been men who have been less successful than her.

“Von der Leyen is our weakest minister. That’s apparently enough to become Commission president,” huffed Martin Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament who led Germany’s Social Democrats to a humiliating defeat in 2017.

She has had to justify herself endlessly about combining a high-powered career with being the mother of seven children.

“Why did she have seven children when she is never home?” Doris Schröder-Köpf, ex-wife of the former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, mused in 2006.

Ms. von der Leyen has spoken about the challenges faced by liberal democracy, a key pillar of the European project.

“Perhaps we as democrats have believed for too long that democracy is so powerful, so convincing, so brilliant that its victory march cannot be stopped,” she told Der Spiegel in 2016. “Democracy can go to the dogs if we don’t care for it.”

She may now be the one defending Europe’s interests before President Trump, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and China’s President Xi Jinping.

She has made some tough noises on all three fronts already.

“America is not its presidents,” she said about trans-Atlantic relations, scarcely hiding her dislike of Mr. Trump, while speaking about the growing “alienation” with Mr. Putin and warning against being naïve about China’s rise and intentions.

Europe, she told The New York Times aboard her ministry’s plane in January, has had a series of wake up calls. Now it needs to act.

“Our crisis was in 2016 right after the Brexit referendum and when President Trump was elected and said NATO is obsolete,” she said.

“This was the point when Europe understood that it has to be able to tackle its own problems, problems that are all around us, and to work on a Europe that protects, a Europe that defends, a Europe that is able to act. That’s what is essential.”

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