Ursula von der Leyen on Russia, COVID-19, and Leading Europe

This winter, as the E.U.’s top official worked around the clock in Brussels, she hoped for something unusual: that it would all be for nothing. It had been just over two years since Ursula von der Leyen became President of the European Commission, and with Russian troops massed along Ukraine’s borders, her job was to coordinate with E.U. members on possible sanctions against Russia. “We were working day and night,” she says “but we hoped we’d never, ever use it.”

The office was where the world’s most powerful women lived by then. Her position doesn’t come with an official residence, and whenever she isn’t traveling for work or making rare trips home to see her family in Germany, von der Leyen sleeps in a 270-sq.-ft. room right by her desk. This unusual choice proved useful when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020, just 102 days after she began her term. Soon, it looked like the E.U. was in serious trouble. With fierce differences over closing borders and tensions about a package of economic relief, it soon looked like the E.U. might collapse. “It was very much crisis mode,” she recalls.

It was hardly what von der Leyen was expecting when she became the first woman in history—and the first German in more than 50 years—to lead the European Commission. (The Commission functions as the E.U.’s executive branch but is also the sole body capable of proposing new laws.) The President’s day-to-day job is to get the College of Commissioners—the representatives of the 27 E.U. member states, taking in 477 million people—to agree on E.U. policies and budgets and propose legislation. She was focused on gender equality and digital policies when she assumed office in December 2019.

However, war and disease have dominated the agenda. Just as the pandemic was beginning to recede—Europe’s COVID-19 death toll now surpasses 2 million—the next crisis began, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. “It was a nightmare,” she says, “but we were prepared, and then we really could act rapidly.”

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The world was taken by surprise at how fast the invasion happened. Three packages of sanctions on Russia had been approved within a week. These included measures against Russian banks as well as Kremlin-controlled media outlets. The E.U. approved three packages of sanctions against Russia for the first time. The E.U. announced that it would provide weapons for a nation under attack. The continent’s dynamics have been shifting dizzyingly quickly, with Germany abandoning decades of pacifism in order to send heavy weaponry to Ukraine and Finland and Sweden abandoning long-standing neutrality for NATO membership.

Von der Leyen was the first Western leader, on April 8, to visit Bucha (the site of Russian atrocities).

Efrem Lukatsky—AP

As in the pandemic, von der Leyen has demonstrated “her ability to be a kind of fixer-leader, in terms of brokering solutions and finding a consensus between member states,” says Susi Dennison, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Others view her as not only a consensus builder, but a voice for moral clarity. In April, she was the first Western leader to visit Ukraine after the Russian invasion, addressing President Zelensky as “dear Volodymyr” and handing him an initial questionnaire to join the E.U. “Your fight is our fight,” she said. In Strasbourg the next month, she demanded accountability for Russian war criminals, insisting that President Vladimir Putin must “pay a very high price” for his brutality.

In May’s conversations, she refused to discuss future relations with Moscow. “Without a change in leadership, I do not see an improving relationship,” she says. “Trust is completely broken.”

Critics say Brussels could still do more; that member states paying a total of some $1 billion a day for Russian oil and gas are funding Putin’s brutality. Even though many recognize that the bloc’s actions were uncharacteristically fast, they are still being criticized. “We proved that democracy can deliver,” von der Leyen says.

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We are all familiar with the inevitable question of how long it will be before this unity emerges from years of bitter divisions in Brussels. But just like the E.U. was born out of the wreckage of the Second World War, a new revitalized European order could well emerge from the current devastation in Ukraine—one that inspires idealism, rather than exhaustion. For von der Leyen, who is leading the bloc at a more significant inflection point than anything since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the task is momentous: “A democracy can always fail if we don’t stand up for it on a daily basis.”

In Brussels in 1958, von der Leyen says she grew up taking democracy for granted. Ernst Albrecht was her father and worked in the E.U. She spent her childhood living in elite surroundings, going to the European School and riding horses. As the third of seven children—who would go on to have seven children of her own—she became an expert in balancing competing interests. “What I learned from early on is that I’m doing best if the group is fine,” she says. “I’m a deep believer in constant negotiation.”

Their family moved to Germany in 1971. In 1972, her father was elected as a state legislator representing the Christian Democratic Union party. Von der Leyen recalls with a shudder the moment she crossed from West Germany to Berlin. “God, you were just scared that anything might happen,” she says, with a shudder. “You felt no protection where the rule of law was concerned.”

Von der Leyen is a postwar European product. She can easily switch between English, German and French. For a short time, Von der Leyen was less likely to be seen in a Soho bar or at a punk show than she was with politicians’ children. In 1978, with her father facing threats that she would be kidnapped, she adopted the pseudonym “Rose Ladson,” and went to study at the London School of Economics. “I lived far more than I studied,” she told German newspaper Die ZeitIn 2016. Cosmopolitan London gave her “an inner freedom” that she still treasures—though she tells me her love of punk has now waned in favor of classical music and, most of all, Adele.

She eventually returned to Germany, where she met her future husband, physician Heiko von der Leyen, in the University of Göttingen choir. In 1986, they were married. Soon after she was graduated from Hannover Medical School, she began her career as a gynecologist. In 1992, the couple moved to California with their three children when Heiko was offered a role on Stanford University’s faculty. Ursula was already working and was shocked at the willingness of Stanford to help them in childcare. She says that in Germany the expectation is for a mother to stay home with her children. That stigma continues to be a problem. In 2019, nearly two thirds of German working mothers with children under 18 were part-time. “It was very modern and what I took back home was: never again will anybody give me a bad conscience about wanting to work and have kids.”

Ursula von der Leyen, with seven of her children in 2003.

P. Piel—Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

After her parents returned from Germany, she became involved with local politics and the CDU. Although she didn’t like being compared with her dad, she said that his political experience made it a feasible career choice. Angela Merkel named her Federal Minister for Family Affairs Senior Citizens Women Youth in 2005. A protégé of Merkel, von der Leyen became a rising star in Germany and proved to be an unexpectedly radical force for the center-right party. In addition to introducing a two-month paid parental leave scheme for dads on unpaid leave, she also increased the number state-funded daycare centers for under-3-year-olds. She saw her career grow and her husband became a major caregiver. It was always a challenge to show how she managed it. “Never would you ask a male minister: How are you managing with your seven children at home? I hated that.”

In 2013, she was appointed Germany’s first female Defense Minister, widely considered the hardest job in Berlin, not to mention the most stereotypically “male.” The woman who was touted as Germany’s next leader—indeed, her 2015 biography had the title Reserving the Chancellor—was in a precarious position by 2019, tainted by a series of scandals. Her career was in jeopardy until the French President Emmanuel Macron saved it. Von der Leyen emerged as a surprise winner—thanks to a controversial backroom deal that got her one of Europe’s top jobs when she hadn’t even campaigned for it. She was already a controversial figure in Germany, and was causing divisions at home. she was nominated by a member state that abstained from voting.

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It is not something she wants to think about. “You learn a lot where leadership is concerned by not only being successful, but also if things go wrong,” she says simply. Though she’s the first woman to serve as President of the Commission, she says the world she now inhabits is “much easier” than the defense ministry. Even so, she isn’t immune from workplace sexism. A video of Charles Michel, President of the European Council and Turkish President Recep Tyyip Erdan, being seated at two tables on a summit went viral. von der Leyen was unable to stand, making her discomfort evident. She later made an impassioned speech calling out the sexist implications of the “Sofagate” incident. “It is a situation that women face a zillion times silently,” she tells me. She learned to deal with these “small humiliations,” in part by watching Merkel cope with intense misogyny over the years: “She was always better in the topic; she always knew more. And later on, nobody questioned her.”

It’s a strategy von der Leyen deploys now. She appears preternaturally calm no matter what happens. (Resorting to national stereotypes, British media have even called her a “German ice queen.”) She credits age, but also knowledge and experience. The more she reads—on vaccine production, on energy, on export controls—the easier it is to be confident of her position. “Being calm does not come as a gift. It comes with hard work.”

Even before takingvon der Leyen, who was in office at the time, knew that it would take hard work to transform E.U. What she proposed back in September 2019 was a new “geopolitical Commission”—a stronger E.U. such a new “geopolitical Commission” would make the E.U more assertive in international affairs, and could lead on climate change issues as well as expand its security role. Problem is, the E.U. The E.U. is fundamentally a rules-based organisation, making it less agile for geopolitical maneuvering von der Leyen may envision. One of her recent efforts to speed-track Ukraine into E.U. she has presented as a moral responsibility. During her April visit to Ukraine, she declared: “Ukraine belongs in the European family.” Yet the way the bloc is set up means the process will almost certainly take years.

Experts say that after a few stumbles during the pandemic—including over a slow COVID-19 vaccine rollout—von der Leyen has emerged as a leader adept at judging what Europe needs in a given moment. “She’s much more comfortable in this multilateral atmosphere,” says William Drozdiak, an expert in European affairs at the Wilson Center and author of the 2017 book Fractured Continent: Europe’s Crises and the Fate of the West. “She recognizes the limits of the role and is playing it very effectively.”

Those limits are that her job is often as much about having a bold vision as it is about being flexible enough to reach a compromise—something she tells me she loves. “I am only powerful as long as I create majorities. That’s the humbling part in democracies, and the wonderful part of it, because you always look for solutions that are good for many.”

All that talk of democracy doesn’t sit well with some. “The E.U. is a profoundly undemocratic community of democracies,” argues Hans Kundnani, director of the Europe program at London-based think tank Chatham House. The union’s executives are appointed by governments, not put in office by the votes of citizens; its institutional proceedings—including its court—are shrouded in secrecy; and its rules are astonishingly bureaucratic. (The acquis communautaire, the “rule book” of the E.U., runs to 90,000 pages.) As a consequence, voters across Europe are deeply disengaged. Turnout at European elections fell steadily for the past four decades before rebounding in 2019 to its highest levels since 1994—a still low 50.7%. A third of European voters support parties critical or hostile to the E.U., which is a doubled number in just two decades. Crisis mode has become something of a default for the bloc, which has struggled to stay united in the face of a debt crisis at the turn of the decade, an influx of refugees, the shock of Britain’s vote to leave, and the pandemic.

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Von der Leyen believes the answer to all this is ever closer integration, wheeling out a metaphor popular in Brussels: “The E.U. It is like riding a bicycle. If it stands still, it will fall.” If integration stops, the argument goes, the European project itself would collapse. She points out that Britain’s departure from the bloc hasn’t spurred other countries to do the same and that public opinion of the E.U. Recent years have seen a rise in popularity of the E.U. According to her, Ukraine is the only thing that can ensure the success of the Union’s future. “The Ukrainians, in an incredibly brave way, are fighting for our values and democratic principles,” she says. “We’re never perfect in democracies, but to have principles—the protection of minorities, the dignity of the human being, freedom of the press—is beautiful.”

The question of what precisely makes European values, and which ones are accepted by liberal democracies around the world, remains a mystery. Von der Leyen’s 2019 proposal for a new E.U. provoked anger. role—“vice president for protecting our European way of life”—for the position overseeing migration policy. It was criticised for echoing racist tropes, which view refugees from non-white and non-Christian nations as a threat of European identity. (The new position uses the word PromotingInstead of protecting.Kundnani is convinced that this has been what really defines the E.U. in the past decade is not a common set of values but a shared perception of external threats—from refugees to Trump to Russia—and that von der Leyen has framed those threats in explicitly “civilizational terms.”

Others say von der Leyen’s tenure has been defined more by her pragmatism than by a focus on European identity. Analyst Dennison cites Brussels’ warmer approach to Poland since the war began, despite its violation of judicial independence, as an example of how von der Leyen is simply trying to secure the necessary votes to push through deals. “She has been part of ensuring that these very complex structures have been able to gear up during a series of quite unprecedented crises,” Dennison says, “but I don’t think she can ever be the figurehead for a rebirth of European democracy.”

A rebirth of European democracy doesn’t seem imminent. Each day presents a challenge to the union. With the most people moving across the continent in the past two decades, the countries of the Union are facing a new challenge. They must provide housing and work for the 6,9 million mostly Ukrainian refugees. With rising food and energy prices and the highest levels of inflation since 1999, sanctions are beginning to take effect. Already Brussels has had to effectively exempt Hungary—whose right-wing Putin-friendly leader Viktor Orban just won a fourth term—from its plan to embargo Russian oil.

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Even so, von der Leyen is reassured that the priorities she set at the start of her term—digitalization, economic resilience, and climate action—are still urgent today. Her European Green Deal strategy, which saw 27 of her member countries commit in 2020 to make the E.U. greener, was a great example. To be a net zero emitter by 2050. “The whole world, including the E.U., should have acted yesterday,” she says. “But we are a world leader.” In July 2021, the E.U. adopted proposals to ensure that the bloc’s policies set it on the path to reduce emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels.

Von der Leyen claims that politicians are now more eager to move than they were before the conflict in Ukraine. “One thing is for sure: this war means that the E.U. is completely diversifying away from Russian fossil fuels,” she says. “Russia is losing its biggest client, and for good.” Even so, she’s aware that the war is not only having a devastating impact on the climate—waging a war is highly fossil-fuel intensive—but also that soaring energy prices can quickly turn the tide of public opinion. High prices can encourage people to look into renewable energy, as she believes this is the ideal scenario. But vulnerable, low-income households and businesses don’t have that kind of flexibility to maneuver, and governments need to subsidize them. “The transition will only work if it’s socially balanced,” she says.

Balance in Europe is difficult to sustain at the moment. Amid all the turmoil, she struggles to take the long view—whether envisioning how the next weeks or months of war might unfold, or imagining where her own career might go once her term at the Commission is up in 2024. Instead she is focused only on the present. “It is stressful and a lot of pressure,” she says. “But whenever I feel like, I’m exhausted, I’ve had it,Next, my thought was: The people of Ukraine can’t say I’m exhausted, I’ve had it.It is my job to handle this crisis. Then we’ll see.”

—With reporting by Leslie Dickstein/New York

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