Merkel and Von Der Leyen The Two Women Who Could Transform Europe

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With Ursula von der Leyen as Commission President and German Chancellor Angela Merkel

By Florian Gathmann, Frank Hornig, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Peter Müller, Jan Puhl and Britta Sandberg

Generally speaking, home for Ursula von der Leyen is Brussels. This is where she spent the first 13 years of her life. “For me, the journey to Brussels very much represents the feeling of coming home,” she says.

More narrowly speaking, Von der Leyen’s home is a 25-square-meter (270-square-foot) space in the Brussels headquarters of the European Commission, of which she is the president. Von der Leyen sleeps in a small apartment connected to her office via an unremarkable door next to a sideboard.

She sometimes spends the weekend in Burgdorf, near Hanover, where her family lives — another home. And then there is Berlin, where von der Leyen was a minister for 14 years. Intellectually speaking, that is also, to some extent, her home — especially when she’s on the phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

During those calls, the two enjoy chatting. Von der Leyen wants to know what was discussed at breakfast by the ministers belonging to the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), ahead of the Wednesday cabinet meetings. “To this day, I miss the Berlin vibrations,” she says. Merkel wants to know who is thinking what within the EU. The two send each other text messages every day.

And starting on July 1, that frequency could increase. That’s when Germany will take over the rotating presidency of the European Council for half a year. From that point, two German women will lead the EU — two women who have a long joint history and very different historical relationships with Europe.

It will be difficult for them. The German presidency of the Council comes at a time when the EU is weaker than it has been in a long time: internal divisions, Brexit, a struggle between China and the U.S. that has marginalized Europe — and the COVID-19 crisis, in whose early period the EU member states only focused on themselves.

Back then, the EU seemed to be falling victim to the pandemic. Things are looking better now, but the Germans’ turn leading the Council remains a “tough challenge,” as German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier of the CDU says.

For Merkel and von der Leyen, the personal stakes are also high. The one wants to make people forget her rough start as head of the Commission. The other wants to secure her European political legacy, which has been rather meagre so far. They depend on each other, but they already know that.

“The chancellor knows that when I have a task, I get to marching,” says von der Leyen. She is sitting in her office on a Sunday shortly after 4 p.m., having just returned from Burgdorf. She has meetings with her team scheduled for the evening.

The Emancipation of Ursula

The chancellor also knows that von der Leyen doesn’t always think about others once she gets going. When the Commission president was recently tasked by the leaders of the EU member states to come up with a proposal for an economic recovery centered around the EU budget, Merkel pointedly admonished her: “Don’t forget to talk to us first.”

For a long time, Merkel, 65, and von der Leyen, 61, had a teacher-student relationship. When Merkel became chancellor in 2005, they were viewed as a Christian Democratic dream team. The relationship cooled when von der Leyen wasn’t named German president in 2010, as she had expected. Later, after von der Leyen became defense minister, Merkel had to admit that like her predecessors, her protegee hadn’t been able to get a grip on the ministry.

In the summer of 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron came up with the idea of making her the EU Commission President, a notion that hadn’t occurred to Merkel. The chancellor was likely a bit uneasy about von der Leyen’s departure for Brussels.

Von der Leyen no longer has to abide by cabinet discipline and now represents Europe’s interest on an equal footing with her former boss. Seen differently, it’s now up to von der Leyen to clean up the mess in Europe left behind during the Merkel era.

Merkel’s first Council presidency came in the first half of 2007, and she quickly became Europe’s de facto leader.

The financial crisis erupted shortly afterward, followed by the euro crisis. Germany made it through that period better than most EU countries, and anyone who ran into trouble needed Merkel’s goodwill to get out of it.

The chancellor could have become the unquestioned leader of Europe, but that would have required more generosity. She only made money available to weaker countries under strict conditions, including regular inspection visits from the so-called “troika” of the European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Commission. Greece felt bullied, leading some to see Merkel as Hitler reincarnate.

No sooner had the euro crisis ended than refugees began streaming into Europe. Without finding consensus with the other countries, Merkel let the migrants stranded in Hungary enter Germany — a decision that led to the next major conflict.

Looking back at Merkel’s nearly 15 years as German chancellor and as a leading EU politician, a certain impression begins to coalesce. Europe has been unable to agree on a humanitarian policy; in Hungary and Poland, democracy has been severely damaged; Great Britain has left the EU and there is still no agreement on how it and the bloc will deal with each other in the future; in Europe, the dispute over money has divided the Continent along north-south lines; the role of the nation state is resurging; the European common, embodied by Brussels, is receding into the background.

When it comes to visionary plans, Europe has become a sad place. Of course, this isn’t just Merkel’s fault, but as the head of the EU’s most powerful country, she bears a heavy share of the blame.

“Germany First”?

There has been a lot of speculation about why Merkel didn’t become a passionate European like former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Unlike him, she did not experience the war, and as a child of communist East Germany, she was not raised as a (Western) European like West Germans of her generation.

In her early years as a politician, she first had to prove that she was a good German, or rather, a good representative of united Germany. Perhaps a national way of thinking was implanted in her mind at that point, a “Germany first” mentality.

Von der Leyen, on the other hand, is a West German who didn’t have to prove she could represent German interests. As early as 2011, she was arguing for a “United States of Europe based on the model of the federal states of Switzerland, Germany or the U.S.”

She was happy to be able to “come home” as head of the Commission. But when the pandemic broke out, von der Leyen, who holds a PhD in medicine, didn’t cut a good figure at first. As the number of infected people increased, Germany, France, Austria, the Czech Republic and many other countries closed their borders. Von der Leyen was pushed aside.

When the lives of their citizens were at stake, the leaders in Berlin, Paris and other member states couldn’t have made it clearer how little they thought of Europe. Border controls are a symbolically loaded measure in the EU, where they represent the opposite of a united Europe. Yet von der Leyen initially accepted them almost speechlessly.

Her initial difficulties might be tied to the fact that, unlike her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, she never led a government. Nor can she claim to have a mandate from voters. In the European elections just over a year ago, her name was not on the ballot.

But now she has the opportunity to increase the Commission’s role more dramatically than anyone in a long time. Merkel, of all people — the Brussels skeptic — paved the way for this.

At first, the chancellor passionately resisted calls to help struggling EU states with “corona bonds.” The euro crisis seemed to be repeating itself. But then, as during the refugee crisis, Merkel’s heart seemed to grow soft — as often happens during humanitarian crises. Together with Macron, she proposed a recovery plan for Europe in which the chancellor agreed to allow states to receive grants they would not have to pay back instead of loans. The EU would be allowed to obtain the money for this through loans.

Some call this concept “community debt,” a previous red flag for the German government. Macron and Merkel earmarked 500 billion euros ($560 billion) for it, and von der Leyen added another 250 billion.

A Turning Point for Europe

With this, the Commission could distribute almost twice as much money in the next few years as it has previously, and its influence is growing accordingly. It is hardly conceivable that Merkel would have conceded this to Juncker. “Without trust, this would not be possible,” von der Leyen says. “We value each other. We do not always agree, but we can rely on each other 100 percent. We know each other very, very well.”

Von der Leyen’s plan includes more than 20 legal acts. For weeks, officials have fought over every detail. She has called each of the leaders of the 27 member states two or three times, trying to bridge the differences between north and south, south and east. “Everyone has understood what is at stake,” von der Leyen says optimistically. “Our opportunity lies in the fact that we now come out of this crisis together.”

But Von der Leyen has little hope of achieving her goal without Merkel’s help.

Nobody is expecting a breakthrough during the June 19th video summit. The Netherlands, Austria, Sweden and Denmark have all joined forces as the “Frugal Four” in EU budget talks. They do not like the idea that the EU wants to fight the crisis by taking on debt.

Merkel and von der Leyen hope that the new momentum could also help solve further problems. The official program for the German EU Council presidency, which the German government hopes to adopt soon, is 24 pages long. It largely focuses on the coronavirus and its consequences, as well as on Brexit, the relationship to China and the reform of European refugee policy.

Germany also wants to campaign in support of minimum wages and against youth unemployment and the loss of biodiversity. The global trading system is also to be strengthened.

Thus far, partner countries have been optimistic about the German presidency and the joint leadership of Merkel and von der Leyen. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire says: “Of course, in the current situation, it helps that Ursula von der Leyen and Angela Merkel have known and trusted each other for years. There’s a closeness that pushes things forward and makes decisions easier.”

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio has defined three priorities. The most important is the recovery fund, followed by migration. Di Maio would like Merkel to put forth larger sums to stabilize North Africa.

The Italian foreign minister would also like to push forward the conference on the future of Europe, despite widespread euroskepticism in Italy, primarily in the hopes of achieving a fiscal union.

Space for Ambition

“Merkel must now finish baking the half-baked biscuits,” says Mario Monti, who was Italian prime minister during the 2011 euro crisis. He says he has no doubt that she will succeed. “Germany has just shown, with excellent authority, that it has a great leadership strength.” He says the way Berlin is providing Europe with its own financial resources is “unique.”

Even Poland is looking favorably upon the German presidency of the Council. Germany has had a bad reputation among members of the Polish right-wing, who currently govern the country and who have argued that Berlin has never given up its quest for world power.

But despite its occasional ideological stubbornness, Warsaw is currently acting pragmatically: Since the British left the EU, Polish national-conservative politicians lack a role model and partner in the EU. That leaves them only the Germans, which is why the Polish government fraction secured a majority for Ursula von der Leyen in the EU parliament.

In Germany, little resistance to a pro-European policy is to be expected, except from the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which was founded as an anti-euro party. The CDU and CSU, on the other hand, will support the chancellor. “The appetite for rebellion has been curbed,” says Gunther Krichbaum, the chairman of the Europe committee in the German parliament. “The situation is allowing Angela Merkel to do things that would not have been possible before.” By situation, he means Merkel’s good poll results and the COVID-19 shock.

It’s now up to von der Leyen to clean up the mess in Europe left behind during the Merkel era.

Florian Hahn, European policy spokesperson for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, sees things similarly. “It is no longer the time for cheap reflexes,” he says. “Corona has the potential to destroy Europe.” He claims that this is now clear to many people in the party. Hahn is not only a politician focused on Europe, he is also the deputy secretary general of the CSU and one of the closest confidants of party leader Markus Söder. “For us, there is definitely a learning curve when it comes to Europe.”

Daniel Caspary, the chairman of the CDU/CSU members in the European Parliament, argues that, given China’s rise and the developments in the U.S., it is even more crucial, from the party’s point of view, to strengthen the EU. “To this end, Merkel will have broad support in the CDU and CSU during the German presidency of the Council,” he says.

With so much support, Merkel could even afford to risk a bit of visionary ambition. She could also just start marching. A recent statement by Merkel, for instance, was surprising. She said that one needs to talk seriously about what Europe cannot do well enough. “This can include treaty changes; it can include us moving much closer together.”

Above all else, Merkel is thinking about foreign policy. She often emphasizes how important it is for Europe to present a united front if the EU is not to be squeezed between the U.S. and China. A first step would be to stop the practice of having every foreign policy announcement coordinated with every EU member.

The chaotic reaction to COVID-19 has also made Merkel consider a closer union. In a joint letter with Macron and other national leaders to von der Leyen, she argued that the last few weeks have “raised questions about the EU’s preparedness for pandemics” and highlighted the need for a “Europe-wide” approach.

A Chancellor Merkel who changes treaties and no longer views EU policy from a purely German perspective — that would really be something new.

Der Spiegel

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