Michael Fry: Germany’s new lady in waiting

Ursula von der Leyen has been rewarded with a promotion to the role of defence minister. Picture: Getty
Ursula von der Leyen has been rewarded with a promotion to the role of defence minister. Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

As Angela Merkel begins her third term as chancellor, all eyes are turning to her possible successor – rising star Ursula von der Leyen, writes Michael Fry

AFTER Angela will it be Ursula? This is the question Germans are now asking at the conclusion of the wearisome process by which their new government has been formed, three months after the general election in September.

Yesterday in Berlin, the federal chancellor, Angela Merkel, 59, was sworn in for her third term, at the head of a coalition cabinet of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in which a stable of old trusties has been brightened by one or two rising stars. Shining most brightly of those stars is Ursula von der Leyen, 55, who under the last government took charge of family affairs (women, pensioners and youth) but has now suddenly been promoted by Merkel to one of the biggest jobs as minister of defence.

Ursula may not actually be all that much younger than Angela, but she looks it. Compared to the dumpy and sometimes haggard chancellor, with her creased and shapeless trouser suits, the Amazon now put in charge of the Wehrmacht is a blonde bombshell, clearly middle-aged but only just, telegenic – and fluent in three languages besides.

She has never let the grass grow under her feet. Born in Brussels as the daughter of a Eurocrat, she first wanted to be an economist and, as part of her degree course, spent a year at the London School of Economics. But then, scarcely embarked on one career, she switched to another and studied medicine. While she qualified, she married and had seven children. As if all that were not enough, in her 40s she went into politics and soon made her mark there, too.

As a federal minister, she has had a penchant for eye-catching policies, such as giving fathers paternity leave and blocking child pornography on the internet. But that, by the standards of German politics, was all small beer. Now, as minister of defence, she will in those same terms have a real job, and puts herself right at the front of the line-up to succeed Merkel when the time comes.

If that should happen, then Germany would be the first country in the world to have had not just one female leader, as Britain and India and Norway and Chile have had, but two in a row. It would surely be some sort of a symbol of a new age in a country where, since the foundation of the federal republic, the political system has been rather a male chauvinist affair, its roots deep in the provincial wheeler-dealing of men in grey suits.

But a lot will depend on the performance of these two feisty German women over the next four years. After only just falling short of an absolute majority in the Bundestag at this year’s election, Merkel might be defined as having reached the height of her career – which also means we can expect the first signs of decline to set in during what will presumably be her last term in office.

In the German and international press, Merkel is getting plenty of advice to alter on this home stretch her general political approach to the problems that crowd on her, marked by a caution sometimes so protracted as to amount to dither. Yet it does not now seem likely she will change the habits of a lifetime, especially as they have served her well on the whole.

While elsewhere governments fall and states totter in the endless crisis of the euro, Germany sails serenely on in its prosperous efficiency, and bails the others out, too, so long as they conform to the exacting standards of Teutonic fiscal and monetary rectitude. German voters moan at what it all costs them, but their government – in which finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble keeps his job – remains convinced that, however painfully over the long term, it is getting things right.

The agreement just reached between the governing parties on a programme for the next four years could pose something of a challenge to all this prudence, as it includes several expensive improvements in social provision (as well as, for the first time in Germany, a minimum wage). But it is not as if the German Social Democrats have ever been spendthrifts, and in recent times they, too, have called for a balanced budget.

The same refusal to let events overwhelm a softly-softly approach marks Germany’s foreign policy and its general reluctance to flex its muscles, or to have thrust upon it the more active role apparently demanded by its impressive economic power. But Germans also know memories abroad are long, and Merkel has never done anything that might possibly reawaken the bad ones.

Could Ursula von der Leyen start to point the way to a new direction? But where? In Afghanistan the role of Germany, as of Britain and other western countries, has now come to an end. So we cannot expect Ursula to be photographed with the troops against the arid backdrop of the Hindu Kush.

Yet taking part in the allied intervention in Afghanistan did represent a new departure for Germany, which since the Second World War had never deployed its army anywhere but on its own soil. There was something of a risk in seeing how the German people would take to this modest experiment with the taboos round the national military tradition – and, perhaps more importantly, to seeing how foreigners would react to it, too.

As things turned out, the German contingent was not to be distinguished from that of any other western country. Its role was mainly non-combatant, though it suffered casualties during insurgent attacks. So, for the first time since 1945, German blood was spilt on foreign soil and German families had to receive the dead bodies of their sons being returned home.

As of now, it is impossible to say how Ursula von der Leyen might try to build on this small beginning to a wider international role for Germany in the 21st century. But it is certainly an area of policy in which she could make her mark and so, if she is successful, prepare her for the much more demanding tasks of national leadership that might possibly await her in the future.