Οι δύο γυναίκες που μπορεί να μεταμορφώσουν την Ευρώπη

With Ursula von der Leyen as Commission President and German Chancellor Angela Merkel about to take over the presidency of the European Council, the European Union is set to be run by two German women with a long history. The Continent might never be the same. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

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.

 

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.