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The Woman Who’ll Decide The Fate of The UK
Ursula von der Leyen is set to become the first female president of the EC. Our next PM should take note…
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are both sounding as confident as they can about their respective chances of bringing about a smooth Brexit, as they continue their contest for the Tory leadership and thus the keys to Downing Street.
For whoever becomes our next PM and seeks to win where Theresa May failed, some of these insights into the life and thinking of the first female European Commission president might bring cheer and pause for thought in equal measure.
Each of them is displaying admirable and/or risible assurance in their chances of both getting more out of the EU than our former PM ever managed, AND being willing to leave in October without a deal if necessary. Either way, whoever gets the gig, his fate will be firmly in the hands of one woman.
Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s current defence minister, looks set to replace Jean-Claude Juncker and become the first female president of the European Commission, making her THE key politician for the next Tory leader to befriend.
Both Johnson and Hunt will be hoping for a softening in the terms offered by the EU before the current withdrawal date of 31 October – perhaps closing their ears to Donald Tusk’s warning this week.
“I am absolutely sure that the new leaders of our institutions will be as consistent as we are today when it comes to the withdrawal agreement and our readiness to discuss our future relationship with the UK,” he said.
So will Frau von der Leyen prove to be a staunch ally to the new Tory incumbent, or leave him wishing for the softer touch of her Luxembourgish predecessor?
For a start, Ursula von der Leyen is a huge fan of London. The former gynaecologist and mother of seven came here for a year in 1978 and enrolled at LSE, but it seems it was her life in the capital rather than her studies that have stayed with her. In an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit in 2016, she waxed lyrical about her time in the UK, and its lifelong effect on her:
“In 1978 I immersed myself for one year in this seething, international, colourful city.
“For me, coming from the rather monotonous, white Germany, that was fascinating. For me, London was the epitome of modernity: freedom, the joy of life, trying everything. This gave me an inner freedom that I have kept until today.
“And another thing I have kept: the realisation that different cultures can get on together very well.”
So far, so conciliatory. And from the same interview, it’s clear she also realises the Brits have their own way of doing things…
“The British were polite, open, tolerant, but at the weekend they went out to the countryside to be very British among themselves. The international residents stayed in the city.
“Since then, I know that despite their openness to the world, the British are always self-reliant.”
Still sounding good. Plus she makes it clear where she differs from Juncker in recognising the EU’s need to stay hand in hand with the UK…
“The British ground all this with their scepticism, their understatement and their great pragmatism. When the British leave the EU, the high-blown will dominate, and the Union could lose its grip. So we need the British.”
So that all sounds promising for the next PM as he enters urgent discussions prior to the Halloween deadline. Equally ardent, however, is her belief in a strong, united continent – so united, in fact, that it, ideally for her, would comprise “a United States of Europe” as she told Der Spiegel in 2011.
And she told Die Zeit two years ago, “I imagine the Europe of my children or grandchildren not as a loose union of states trapped by national interests.”
Ah. If you hadn’t guessed, she is fiercely anti-Brexit, describing events since the referendum as a “burst bubble of hollow promises… inflated by populists” and last year telling Berliner Morgenpost that Brexit is a “loss for everyone”.
Despite this, she has taken a tough line on the future of Europe and its partners, pointing out the problems with providing Britain with any exceptional conditions for leaving. She told Bild:
“We want a good partnership with Great Britain in the future. But if we define a special path for Great Britain, other partners like Norway will demand the same. Rules must be the same for everyone.”
As you may be able to tell, she is an ardent supporter of European integration – so much so that she’s been termed a “federal fanatic”.
This is understandable considering her personal background. She is the daughter of Ernst Albrecht, one of the original senior civil servants turned state governor when the European Economic Community was formed in 1957, and enjoyed a privileged, pan-European upbringing and education – including attendance at the European School in Brussels, the same institution attended by one Boris Johnson during his father’s time working for the EC in the 1970s.
Von der Leyen would hope to have more success with any federal “army of Europeans” than she has enjoyed with her own domestic forces. During her long tenure as Angela Merkel’s defence minister, her record has become the stuff of bungling legend – from helicopters that can’t fly to submarines that can’t swim as well as more serious charges of contract mismanagement. One scandal that raised questions in parliament involved a naval training vessel, whose repair costs somehow went from 10 million to 135 million Euros.
The European Commission will want to avoid any such clangers in its delicate handling of negotiations in the coming months. And as economist Richard Wellings points out, von der Leyen’s same enthusiasm for tightening the Union may play straight into hard Brexiteers’ hands, with its implicit suggestion that Brits will have less of a say than ever in future European legislation. He calls the German politician’s appointment “fantastic news”, explaining in an interview with RT:
“If they succeed in their centralisation agenda and they do manage to create this EU army centralised eurozone budget and so on then it is going to become much more difficult for Britain to rejoin the EU, assuming it is eventually allowed to leave.
“So I think you are going to see a bigger and bigger cleavage between what the British people want and what the EU elite wants.”
Von der Leyen may see a similar sense of opportunity for greater European cooperation without the Brits constantly applying the brake. Back in 2016, she pointed out, “Britain consistently blocked everything that had Europe written on it.”
And one thing Ursula von der Leyen has going for her… Ann Widdecombe disapproves of how she came to be appointed, so she must be doing something right. The new president of the EC may prove a formidable adversary for whoever ends up walking into 10 Downing Street at the end of the month.
On the bright side, we can celebrate what Donald Tusk calls “perfect gender balance” with two of the top positions in Brussels now going to women. As well as von der Leyen’s appointment, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, will succeed Mario Draghi as president of the European Central Bank, putting two women into senior EU posts for the first time.
Donald Tusk commented, “Europe is not only talking about women, it is choosing women. After all, Europe is a woman.”