The rise of Mrs Europe
A new EU is emerging. Will Ursula von der Leyen lead it to triumph or failure?
This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
The first thing that strikes you about Ursula von der Leyen is a kind of absence — that there is something false or inauthentic about this immaculate politician; something which is strangely hard to place. Cryptic and opaque like the glass fronts of her Berlaymont headquarters that promise openness but give nothing away.
It would be a mistake to look straight through her. You cannot understand Europe without understanding Ursula von der Leyen. Born in Brussels, a second-generation Eurocrat, she is the embodiment of the class whose decisions will decide whether the Union evolves into a United States of Europe or begins to disintegrate. Her politics is the Rosetta Stone that unlocks how the Merkel system really works. Her life reveals the German journey through Europe and whether its direction still makes any sense. From Brussels, where she was born, to Berlin and now back to the Berlaymont, from father to daughter, this is a journey from supplication to power, from idealism to angst.
German ministers tend to be constantly in motion: the Brussels ministerials, weekends in the Länder, the endless joint cabinet meetings with a dozen allies. They are creatures of sleep snatched on planes, of constant exhaustion. It was 2009, in Warsaw, that Jacek Rostowski, the Polish finance minister sat down next to “this small, rather handsome woman” at the biannual joint Polish-German cabinet meeting. Rostowski glanced at her. He didn’t recognise this minister. “But somehow, somewhere, I had this feeling I knew her.” She introduced herself: Ursula von der Leyen, minister for labour and social affairs. Still nothing. The name didn’t ring a bell.
Merkel and von der Leyen text every day, the chancellor filling in the president on Berlin, Ursula briefing Angela on Brussels
Conferences. Panels. Circles. The elite who run Europe are never not in the same room for long. About six months later, at Davos, the Polish minister found himself sitting next to this same German minister. They shook hands, said how nice it was to see each other. Rostowski flew back to Warsaw. “Then, three days later, I had this feeling come down from above and hit me in the back of the head.” Everything came flooding back.
Earls Court, London, 1978. Still the dreary London of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, bedsits and the occasional bombsite; where Rostowski, a young lecturer and the son of Polish exiles, lived in a house his mother had divided up into flats. She had rented out the top floor to Erich Stromeyer, a German banker on the other side of a divorce.
One day he informed them that his brother-in-law was a prominent politician in Germany and that the Baader-Meinhof gang were threatening to kidnap and murder his daughter. The situation was rather serious: would the Rostowskis mind if she moved in with him, to study at the LSE, until the crisis passed?
She moved in with an alias: Rose Ladson. “She had this puppy fat,” Rostowski remembers. “She was very bouncy, very nice and always out.” Her real name was Ursula Gertrud Albrecht, and the Rostowskis quickly noticed she liked staying out late, only coming back to Philbeach Gardens after one o’clock in the morning. “But when she came back she never bothered to close the front door properly. I thought this slightly lighthearted, given people were supposedly trying to kidnap and kill her.”
The LSE at the time was not yet the City feeder school — all international students with little esprit de corps — that it would become: but still the school of Ralf Dahrendorf, student occupations, the faint ghosts of Sidney and Beatrice Webb still hovering over its politics. But “Rose Ladson” would hardly have known this as she was hardly there.
Obsessed by punk in a London where The Clash were playing at the Hammersmith Palais, she spent more time in Soho pubs and Camden record stores than the LSE library. She earned herself a reputation as a girl who “liked to go crazy in discos”. She herself has said: “I lived much more than I studied.”
London was everything provincial Germany was not. “London,” she told Die Zeit, “was for me then the epitome of modernity: freedom, the joy of life, trying everything.” This love of London explains the particular bitterness and pain of much of Europe’s elite, which continues to identify with, or retweet, Britain’s Remain campaigners to this day. Eight former EU ministers are LSE alumni; while Jacek Rostowksi would later stand for the European Parliament for the curious blip that was Change UK. London, not Paris, was where they became “European”.
Albrecht’s Europe was an end in itself: but it was also the pursuit of national interest
‘‘Europe is the story of generations,” said Ursula von der Leyen to the European Parliament. Like George W. Bush or Justin Trudeau, the Commission’s head cannot be understood without understanding her father. But even he was not merely a man but also a name. That special joy the 20-year-old Ursula took in the alias “Rose Ladson” came from the weight of being an Albrecht. The baronial connections of the top-floor flat in Philbeach Gardens were no fluke. Twelve generations of prominence — pastors, esteemed doctors, state councillors, grand merchants — looked down on her through that name from the Hanseatic trading elites of Bremen, the kingdom of Hanover and the electorate of Cologne. The Albrecht family even had its own entry in Deutsches Geschlechterbuch, the closest German equivalent to Burke’s Landed Gentry.
By the nineteenth century the Albrechts were merchant princes of Bremen, cotton importers who married into the slave- and plantation-owning Ladson family of South Carolina (hence Ursula’s London surname) — the kind of German trading houses which did far more to build the colonial world under English or American flags than is often realised. They were the sort of men lampooned by Thomas Mann, himself from old Hanseatic Lubeck, in The Magic Mountain, as “obstinately convinced of the right of the aristocracy to govern”.
In 1945, out of the wreckage of two world wars, Ernst Albrecht emerged. Bremen had been almost completely destroyed. But Ernst was in love and he was intelligent and ambitious. He needed the best degrees and he wanted to marry the daughter of the family friends with whom he had hidden from the RAF: Heidi Adele Stromeyer.
He left for university at Tübingen, in the American occupation zone, to study philosophy and theology before winning a scholarship to Cornell. A new German elite was being made, by American hands, and he was determined to be in it. To Heidi Adele, he confessed his love before crossing the Atlantic: he would always be “Percy” to her. Returning to Europe, Ernst was drawn to Bonn, Konrad Adenauer’s new capital, whose university was fast emerging as the Balliol for the emerging state. His graduate thesis was entitled Is monetary union a prerequisite for economic union? It would prove a shrewd choice; and he knew it.
Appointments and promotions came fast. At 24, he was made attaché to the European Coal and Steel Community in Luxembourg: the nascent European project in its very infancy. He rose further. In a photograph taken in a palazzo in Rome in 1957 — faded, the faces slightly obscure — a long line of leaders sit, signing a document. Renaissance paintings hang behind them. They are the men (and they are all men) behind the Treaty of Rome, the founding act of the European Economic Community and the most important treaty in Europe since the treaty of Westphalia. Behind Adenauer is Ernst Albrecht.
Whilst German officials made sure to genuflect towards the Italians and the French in public, Ernst was little affected by postwar guilt. “Dear people,” he said, “either you want to build Europe with us or not. We are a new generation. The old histories should be dealt with by the old. I am as impartial a representative of my country as the French.”
Albrecht’s Europe was an end in itself: but it was also the pursuit of national interest. His ultimate boss, Walter Hallstein, the first president of the Commission, captured what might at first seem like a contradiction. “The forgotten European”, like Adenauer himself, he refused to accept the new western Polish border on the Oder-Neisse line and gave his name to the Hallstein Doctrine: that Bonn would neither establish nor maintain diplomatic relations with anybody that recognised East Germany except the Soviet Union. West Germany was too weak to stand its ground alone geopolitically. Adenauer and Hallstein needed a stronger Europe.
The Brussels the Albrechts moved to after the Treaty of Rome was a very different place from the Eurostar city of today. Ernst was made chef de cabinet to the first German Commissioner. English was hardly spoken. The working language was French and the modest quarters of “the six” had a smaller Carolingian feel. It was a world only of men, who worked late and stayed out later, drinking or politicking.
When she worked out she was pregnant with their third child, Heidi Adele put a child’s chair in front of Ernst’s office door to trip him up and announce it. Ursula Gertrud was born on 8 October, 1958, in Brussels, just 18 months after the Treaty of Rome. “You are a sensational baby,” wrote her mother in her diary. “The first that does not come screaming into life.” Her nickname was Röschen, the diminutive for Rose.
From her father Ursula would get her politics; from her mother the purpose of her politics. Heidi Adele was from the stifled generation of women, after the opening of education but before the opening of the professions. She was a graduate of Heidelberg, held a doctorate from Freiburg, and could have, in the family telling, been a gifted writer or famous journalist. But she was only ever to be her husband’s shadow, her energies channelled into theatrical diary entries.
Little Röschen was already Ernst’s favourite: “The showpiece of the house is Ursula Gertrud, just two years old,” her mother wrote in the diary. Her six children grew up Europeans: Ursula was sent to the new European School, where the children of the machinery that was landing in Brussels — the EEC, Nato, Euratom — were raised trilingually, self-consciously as an elite. It was the very same school in the suburb of Uccle that Boris Johnson briefly attended, when his father worked as a more jobbing Eurocrat, a few years later.
The Berlaymont took frostily to von der Leyen and her two spin doctors she brought with her from Berlin
They had everything they needed, a genteel, well-paid life. But the longer they stayed in Brussels the less happy the Albrechts became. Having since his twenties been in the room hovering behind the great men of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Ernst was impatient to become one. “I was 37 years old and at the peak of a European bureaucrat’s career. Was I going to stay director general for competition until my sixty-fifth birthday? I couldn’t imagine it.” The 1960s was not a happy time to be a German Eurocrat. De Gaulle was saying no: his strong France would not permit a more federal, presidential commission, to overshadow it. And Ernst began to actively court politicians.
A short walk from the Charlemagne building in Brussels today, the plaques and flags above its doors reveal as much about Germany as they do about Europe. Bavaria. Baden-Wurttemburg. Every German Land has its own EU delegation: better outfitted and housed than those of many threadbare member states. The plush interiors reveal why Germany, constantly negotiating with itself, for most of its political history a part of the checkerboard Holy Roman Empire, is so comfortable in the European Union. Federalism is its natural form.
Albrecht’s Land was Lower Saxony on the North Sea: roughly, the Kingdom of Hanover where his grandfather was director general of customs. Ernst fixed his eyes on the prize: the party arranged him a sinecure at a biscuit manufacturer in Hanover while he found a seat. He moved in 1970, leaving his family behind. They followed after their daughter Benita died of spinal cancer in January 1971. She was 11 years old. Ursula was now the only daughter.
The family was at odds, almost in defiance, of the waves of ’68 reshaping Germany. Prayers were said before dinner. The Albrecht seat, an old farmhouse in Ilten, outside Hanover, ringed by an enormous blackberry bush, was decorated in a manorial style. Family life was filled with horses, home concerts and weighty, self-improving tomes handed out from the library: War and Peace or Dr Zhivago.
It was here Ursula’s personality began to form: her love of music, animals and most of all, attention. Her main activities consisted of showjumping and dutifully greeting the many famous people who came to the family home to meet her father. Unlike some of her siblings, she liked presenting herself. Yet, her biographers Ulrike Demmer and Daniel Goffart note, her father never took her seriously. “The conservative Albrecht stood in reserved rejection as regards the women’s question,” remembered Rolf Zick, his journalistic contemporary.
A shock vote, on the back of three defectors from the ruling coalition, in the state assembly made Ernst Albrecht minister-president of Lower Saxony in 1976. This was more, back then, than being a state governor. Right-wing politics in the 1970s was a game of little kings, regional strongmen, and pockets of deeply conservative, reactionary holdovers, still unsure of their Western vocation. Lower Saxony was his.
The lives of his children changed even further. Rank-and-file members of the Lower Saxony CDU were expected to admire the minister-president’s gifted daughter. Hans-Gert Pöttering, later president of the European Parliament, recalled such talk of the first daughter as a youthful activist: “As a member of the party without knowing her personally, we got to know about her as this extraordinary girl and the politicians spoke about her as ‘Röschen’ … and she was already seen as this extraordinary person.”
Her mother, “the first lady” of Lower Saxony, arranged the spectacle. Like something Victorian, or out of Little Women, plays written by Mrs Albrecht would be performed by the children at family reunions. At Christmas or Easter, roles would be allocated to a larger cast: the other children in the village. The family performance, or rather the performance of family, was for Ernst Albrecht inseparable from his politics.
Like a cross between a provincial German Joseph Kennedy and the von Trapp family he not only invited the cameras to film his bucolic home but had his wife and children perform as a family choir on a local TV station. As David Bowie was performing Heroes in West Berlin in 1978, where two lovers from east and west could “beat them, just for one day”, the Albrecht family even released a single, “Well in God’s Beautiful World”. But it wasn’t: polarised, divided, terror-marred, her brothers driven to school in police cars — this was the unhappy Germany Ursula felt so free of in Camden Market.
Most political careers hang on one encounter: hers was with Christian Wulff, in 1999, when she was at a horse auction
The low point in Ursula’s life came at Stanford. It was the early 1990s and she was a frustrated housewife: a travelling spouse. History was repeating herself: not her father’s but her mother’s. After six semesters in London, the Baader-Meinhof threat judged eliminated, “Rose Ladson” had to become Ursula Albrecht again. She felt isolated and unhappy back at Göttingen University, until she met Heiko von der Leyen in the university choir. She was 24 years old. He was a scientist, and the issue of a long line of noble silk merchants; she followed him to California.
Hers was the frustrated generation: women for whom education and the professions were open. But nothing had been done to make them compatible with families, no attitudes about a man’s role really changed. “Static hierarchies of power” was what Ursula felt she hit. Graduating from Hanover Medical School in 1992 she practised as a doctor but found herself dismissed as “too lazy to work” by a superior when she was pregnant. Heiko, according to her biographers, was “unable to help her” with the daily tasks raising the kids. Instead, like so many women, she was left juggling. When Heiko won a faculty position at Stanford, she stopped working completely. “That was the way it was at the time,” her friend Sabine Cramer has recalled. “When a husband pursued a career we didn’t complain.”
It all looked so different 15 years later. “I never expected the end of the patriarchy to look like this,” said Rebecca Harms, then a Green MEP for Lower Saxony. “I never expected it to be dismantled by the CDU.” In 2005, Angela Merkel had been elected Chancellor and von der Leyen had been plucked from the government of Lower Saxony to be her minister of family and social affairs. Harms was astonished: the daughter of the reactionary “who did the most to force me into politics” was now the campaigning face of gender equality.
Returning to Germany in 1996, von der Leyen had thrown herself into her father’s footsteps. Most political careers hang on one encounter: hers was with Christian Wulff, in 1999, when she was a show rider at a horse auction. The future minister-president was impressed: not only was she a great rider, she was six months pregnant with her seventh child. He saw ambition and determination. He saw grit.
What made Ursula such good television was that she was Ernst Albrecht’s daughter and she had seven children
With heavy armchairs and deep sofas, talk shows are a key part of German political life. They have been central to von der Leyen’s ascent, first as the campaigning face of Wulff’s government in Lower Saxony, winning the attention of Angela Merkel, Mutti herself. This is where von der Leyen excelled: evening after evening, making the case, Angela’s microphone, for a family-friendly CDU.
What made Ursula such good television was that everybody in Germany knew two things about her: that she was Ernst Albrecht’s daughter and that she had seven children. Von der Leyen was really another alias, and, even better for the viewers, the message was simple: this was not her father’s sexist party any more, but one the urban bourgeoisie could be comfortable with. First as minister of family affairs and youth, then as minister of labour and social affairs, this was von der Leyen at her best, pushing for childcare, pushing for paid parental leave, pushing even when her party was against it. “It’s no secret this made her unpopular in her own party,” said one CDU source.
This was the Merkel system at work, always using outriders, pushing to win the centre ground, calculating, then dialling back, never allowing anyone to get too strong. “Kneecapping those needing to know their place,” to quote one source. Merkel is too precise a politician to ever let anyone think something by mistake. But for a few heady days in 2010 she allowed Ursula to think she would be the next president of the federal republic, to the extent that stories started appearing about Heiko as the “first man”. Instead, she chose her old boss, Christian Wulff. Crushed, thinking she and Merkel had a special relationship, Ursula emerged scarred. Mutti later explained: such is politics.
For almost 15 years, like a Thomas Cromwell figure, this East German-born outsider, this GDR physicist, with a portrait of Catherine the Great on her desk, has been the master of German politics. With reunification, her generation’s historical task, complete, Merkel has approached it like a scientist, not an idealist, taking pleasure in plotting a course, for Germany, for herself, between these different oscillating and colliding forces, not advancing programmatically towards a goal. Ursula von der Leyen: this name, a tool not a friend, to maintain the centre quo.
The lounge in Brussels airport. British politicians think of Brussels as a Eurostar city but for most Europeans it is reached by plane. Germans and Italians; Germans and Swedes; Germans and Poles; this lounge is where much of Europe’s discreet diplomacy goes on. In 2011, as Greece drifted towards default, Jacek Rostowski found himself with Ursula von der Leyen in the lounge discussing the euro crisis. “I told her that it’s not a Greek crisis, this is a eurozone crisis,” he remembered. “She had no idea.” It is a telling anecdote about von der Leyen. But it also reveals that by 2011 the German journey through Europe no longer made sense.
Von der Leyen moved into the Defence Ministry in 2013. The arc of history had bent towards Berlin and this was where it would be seen most clearly. Whereas her father’s Germany — the country of Willy Brandt and the Red Army Faction — had been polarised and ashamed, Ursula’s Germany was the great consensus, morally confident, almost smug. Berlin had become what London had been in the 1970s: a city of grungy clubs, artists and runaways.
But inside the ministries something European had gone. Whereas in Bonn they had been programmatic, in Berlin they were happy to let things drift. Reunification complete, strategic depth achieved, trade with China booming; there were no geopolitical goals which Germany needed to accomplish that it could only achieve through a stronger Commission. The logic of national interest that made Bonn accept the euro — reunification — was gone for the the eurobonds necessary to make the euro work. Building a deeper union was no longer on the minds of the German ruling class.
All her life Ursula has been the daughter, the successor, the chancellor in reserve — never her own person
Ursula had pushed for the defence ministry, that most male of the roles, and perhaps the hardest job in Berlin, one that had become the graveyard of German ministers. It was a media sensation. But what followed was von der Leyen at her worst. Run-down after decades of neglect, the army was in despair, unable to fulfil even its most basic international commitments. It was a swamp of corruption, procurement scandals, mismanagement and festering far-right pockets in the barracks. Determined to make a difference, von der Leyen turned to the most fashionable tools of the day: the revolution promised by management consultants and McKinsey contracts. “She ran the defence ministry with a small team of outsiders,” said Carlo Masala, a professor of international politics at the university of the Bundeswehr, who frequently worked for the ministry. “She likes to disrupt existing structures,” said one former consultant.
The result was not a success. Like Merkel’s austerity decade of German leadership in Europe it was all flashy statements, scandals, unhappy officers and little to show for it. At the defence ministry she became the face of Germany’s substance problem: a yawning gap between her slogans, like support for “a European Army”, and actual investment in European defence. “The ministry was killing her,” said one source. By 2019, the defence minister her biography tried to promote as The Chancellor In Reserve was a busted flush. Her career was sundowning.
There is a joke in the Bundestag. How do you abbreviate von der Leyen? I-c-h, or me. But what does von der Leyen believe? This is a question that often draws a blank with European officials. Few can sketch out her worldview. Her reputation in Berlin, especially among journalists, is one for PR. But insiders are more generous. “She strongly believes in female equality,” said one official, “being pro-European and in transatlanticism.” That the German defence minister was the European in cabinet, a throwback to her father’s party idealism, was not lost on Paris.
Emmanuel Macron was returning from Brussels in July 2019 when he had an idea. Negotiations for a new president of the Commission were blocked. The Spitzenkandidat system, where the blocs in the European Parliament ran their own campaigns to propose heads of the Commission, had broken down, he thought. The European People’s Party, really the CDU and its allies, had proposed Manfred Weber, in Macron’s mind a politically diminutive, Bavarian figure, better suited to the Munich arena and simply unacceptable. But the EPP was barring Frans Timmermans, the social democrats’ man and a Dutch figure of stature. The process was blocked.
This is when the name von der Leyen came up. Merkel had mentioned her to French officials before: first, some time ago, as a potential secretary general of Nato, then as a possible EU high representative, to be the bloc’s lead on foreign affairs in Brussels. Macron thought she was credible, he knew Merkel liked her, and he knew she was CDU. “That’s how we ended up at the end with a result that would never have happened had we proposed it first,” said a senior official. Von der Leyen not only had not been expecting it: her career itself had been saved by Macron.
The mood in Brussels is now one of triumphalism. Talk of von der Leyen is effusive
Now Merkel and von der Leyen text every day, the chancellor filling in the president on Berlin, Ursula briefing Angela on Brussels. They phone constantly: it’s as if von der Leyen never left the cabinet. Theirs is a political generation: this cohort of European women, for whom being in power is no longer the exception, but not quite the norm. Yet this back and forth between two German women is Macron’s plan working. For a decade, France, its economy shaky, its exports to Asia lagging, has needed a stronger Commission to borrow German power.
But Germany, aware of this, has been blocking French proposals, increasingly seeing the Commission as a lawyer for the debtor states. Putting the Merkel system inside the Berlaymont, Macron gambled, would unlock Berlin’s trust of the institutions, granting them more power. He bet that having a German in the Commission would interest the Chancellor too: for more than a decade a strategy has existed to put more German senior officials in place to better steer the Commission towards German interests. Von der Leyen would be its culmination.
But it was not a happy return to Brussels. That intimate, Francophone, Commission of her father was gone. The Berlaymont today is a place of global English, an internationalese, which de Gaulle once mocked as a “some kind of Esperanto or Volapük”. This bubble took frostily to von der Leyen and her two senior advisers, rather spin doctors, she brought with her from Berlin. “She’s relying too much on Germans,” said one source. “She’s paranoid,” said another. It reflected a consensus: that von der Leyen, still stuck in appearances on late-night German talk shows, was failing.
But so too, went the old Brussels conventional wisdom, was the Commission. “Juncker believes that von der Leyen is letting the Commission become a directorate-general for the Council,” said one former official — not a supranational government-in-becoming but merely a civil service. The Commission, it was said, had been in decline at the expense of the national leaders in the European Council since France and the Netherlands voted to reject the European Constitution in 2005. Nobody expected this new president to do any more than manage these small expectations.
The coronavirus changed everything. At first, it looked as if von der Leyen, maybe even the European Union itself, might be one of its victims. As social distancing orders went into effect, warning drones patrolled the streets of Brussels and the Eurocrats emptied out of the Berlaymont, fear gripped those working remotely from their laptops.
This was not only a medical crisis. The coronavirus was also a political crisis and inevitably a euro crisis. As it became clear that the costs of the lockdown could push Italy into a doom loop of debt, austerity and populism, anger flared towards the EU across the weaker southern economies. “I’ve never seen such a dangerous rise in Euroscepticism,” said one EU minister. As multiple polls showed roughly half of Italians in favour of leaving the bloc, up from less than a third less than two years ago, a complex game started to play out between Paris and Berlin, over how to pay for the crisis. It was clear the only answer was a huge increase in debt. But would it be mutualised? Would the bond-purchasing programme run by the European Central Bank continue its limited stealth mutualisation itself or be struck down by the German constitutional court in Karlsruhe? Few expected von der Leyen to provide the answers.
Suddenly there is no Mutti, no Vati, to lead the way. Now it’s all up to her
Macron had her right where he wanted her. But at first it looked as if he might fail. As the pandemic raged in France, Italy and Spain the Élysée stunned Berlin by calling for a common debt instrument to pay for the crisis with Rome, Madrid and six other eurozone countries. Otherwise, they made clear behind closed doors in Brussels, several members risked insolvency. Merkel flatly refused. Mutualised debt was, as ever, a German red line.
But then, as the worst of the coronavirus seemed to spare Germany, something changed. A proposal, first conceived of in the Berlaymont its supporters claim, was picked up by both finance ministers and civil servants in Spain and France. It was to let the Commission borrow massively in its own name and then distribute a one-off package of loans and grants to the worst-affected member states. Berlin suddenly liked it.
The Élysée gamble had paid off. This was a Commission Merkel could do business with: von der Leyen, unlike Juncker, unlike Prodi, was someone she could trust. Macron and Merkel shook hands on it: von der Leyen was not in the photograph. But it didn’t matter, as it wasn’t about her. France and Germany had decided that a financially empowered Commission was in their interest. “We’ve now got a chance to achieve more than anyone since Jacques Delors,” said one Commission official. German leadership in Europe has suddenly found direction again, corralling “the frugals” onside. Von der Leyen, in a tag-team of calls with Macron, Merkel, and the bumbling Charles Michel, president of the European Council, is suddenly its unexpected face.
The breakthrough is historical, but so far mostly because of the history it could portend. The list of wins the pandemic has unlocked for the Commission — billions in common debt, common expenditure and the door to real common taxation — were all unimaginable a few months ago. But despite the EU budget roughly doubling, the sums are still not enough: Italy’s grants might well come to as little as 0.6 per cent of annualised GDP over the next three years. This is because what struck was not altruism but the national interest: to save Germany’s EU export markets Merkel chose yet again to do what was necessary to save, but not the maximum necessary to overhaul, the euro. For all the squabbles with “the frugals” these are not full eurobonds. Only a share of the crisis, not the full European debt itself, which would unburden the south, has been mutualised.
The mood in Brussels is now one of triumphalism. Talk of von der Leyen is effusive, unrecognisable from March. “She listens,” said one Commisson official. “She pays incredible attention to speeches,” said another. “We’ve seen more of her in four months than we saw of Juncker in four years,” said another. Her Berlaymont bedroom, installed like a Napoleonic camp bed by her office so she can be at work in minutes, is no longer ridiculed. This elation comes not from the fiscal numbers themselves. It comes from an augury: that though the Macrons and Merkels may come and go a new super-Commision, now Europe’s treasurer of last resort, is here to stay. With the Rubicon crossed, this assumption goes, the button for common debt will keep on getting pressed at crisis summits until the Berlaymont sits at the heart of a fiscal union.
But will it? In three years’ time will Europeans really see this new power as having driven their recovery? After von der Leyen was confirmed by the European Parliament, the chamber burst into rapturous applause, before MEPs made their way to gladhand their new president. Suddenly in front of her, the beaming David McAllister, the former minister-president of Lower Saxony, hugged her and said: “You know what? Your father can see you now!”
Von der Leyen smiled. Towards the end of his life, Ernst Albrecht was asked if he had ever failed at something. The old man replied: “Every person fails somewhere in life. I worked with all my might for 17 years towards the unification of Europe. I would find today I failed in this.”
All her life Ursula has been the daughter, the successor, the chancellor in reserve — never her own person. For her whole life in politics, Europe has been stuck, in crisis, the work of her father’s generation at risk. Now the wheels of history have turned: for her, for the Commission she heads, this is an occasion to assert powers which might not come again.
France and Germany are both saying yes; the European Council, the rival in the Europa building, is headed by a uniquely risible Belgian figure; the coronavirus rescue package, if von der Leyen can implement it, could hand power to the Berlaymont that has been seeping away since Delors; but only if she can hold onto it. Suddenly there is no Mutti, no Vati, to lead the way. Now it’s all up to her. If she fails, if the Commission fails, it’s all up to her. There are few moments in politics as exhilarating, as terrifying, as that.
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