Ursula von der Leyen

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== You are Ursula von der Leyen, President of the Commission of Europe ==

Your Role

The President of the Commission holds a very powerful position within the EU. The Commission is the legislative assembly of the EU, and the President sets the agenda for that assembly. She is also charged with representing the EU at important international events such as the G8 and the UN. The President’s role in foreign affairs is the enunciation and publication of EU policy. While she certainly engages in foreign policy, she focuses on making clear to other parties where the EU stands. This is a critical role as it helps to foster understanding between different parties, and to enhance the role of Europe on the world stage. However, it is important to note here that the President is bound by the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Like all other EU actors, she does not act alone or pursue her own goals but, rather, she pursues the goals outlined by the Council of Europe. A big part of her job is to publicize Europe's role in order to encourage the actions of other nations in supporting development measures. Not only does this make the EU look better, it subtly makes those who don’t do the same look worse. This is a way of subtly applying pressure, and it is an art in which the President should be skilled.

Ursula von der Leyen

Your connection to the European Union goes all the way back to your birth, in 1958 in Brussels, Belgium, where your father was one of the first civil servants to work for the European Community. Trained as a medical doctor, you first became involved in politics in 1990, joining the Christian Democratic Party (CDU). You rose in the party ranks until the CDU, under the leadership of Angela Merkel, won the federal elections in 2005. You served as a minister for Chancellor Merkel from the beginning, serving first as Minister for Family Affairs. During your tenure, you achieved notoriety for arranging the first joint Cabinet meeting between Israel and Germany in 2008. With Merkel’s re-election in 2009, you took over as Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, holding what came to be a highly-visible position during complex times. You led the fights for increased funding for childcare and for a national minimum wage, and you led a successful effort to legalize gay marriage. You were also at the forefront of your government’s efforts to lower the barriers to immigration, sharing Chancellor Merkel’s belief that Germany needed to increase its workforce given a growing economy and a stagnant birth rate. This effort gradually became more and more controversial, as attitudes in Europe shifted against increased immigration, but you were a strong voice urging restraint, in the face of some European nations effectively closing the door to new immigrants, and a good many European political leaders engaging in harshly anti-immigrant rhetoric.

By the time of the 2013 elections, many looked at you as the political heir apparent to Chancellor Merkel, but you allowed Merkel to appoint you as Defense Minister, a move that carried great political risk. In the years following World War II, and even after German unification, Germany has been cautious about its military involvement on the world stage, being reticent to put too many resources into its military. It seems that among the German people, the German defense establishment, and Germany’s NATO (North American Treaty Organization) allies, there is a lot of ambivalence about whether, for example, Germany ought to be devoting more money to defense, and taking a more active role in UN actions like the intervention in Libya in 2011. As Defense Minister, you became the face of this policy, and the target on its many critics, and you took a lot of political heat, even as you pushed, for example, for more German involvement in NATO. In the end, however, you wound up being the candidate best able to generate support from both the center-left and the center-right in Europe, and you narrowly won nomination to take over from Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the Commission of Europe in July 2019.

Like your EU colleagues, you see the importance of financial interests in achieving political goals. You are a powerful politician occupying a role that some refer to as the dictator of Europe. However, even with your political might within the EU, your powers in foreign affairs are greatly curbed. You may not pursue your own policy but, rather, you must uphold the CFSP. Like Borrell and Michel, you are bound to the decisions of the council. This is so that the EU does not trample over the sovereignty of member nations.

Your role in foreign affairs is to drum up support for EU policies and to publicize EU achievements in the international sphere. There is clear overlap between your duties and those of both Borrell and Michel, though, so you work in close concert with them to avoid wasting effort. For example, while Borrell might be pressuring Israel to allow goods into Gaza, and Michel is working behind the scenes with communiqués to the U.S., you will probably be trying to encourage other nations to follow the EU’s lead through the use of press releases demonstrating the concrete steps the EU is ready to take in order to ensure that the Gaza border crossings are functional and secure. Your job is to demonstrate the leading nature of Europe, and through the illustration of that role to encourage others to follow in the EU’s footsteps. This complex strategy requires that each member discuss with the other members their interpretation of the CFSP. Remember that the CFSP is vague for a reason. It is constructed to provide a set of guidelines that you can adapt to changing scenarios without having to get a CFSP for each new change. This does present some political pitfalls. What happens when you overreach and act in a way contrary to the CFSP? By ensuring that you work with the rest of your teammates, you ensure that you have some political cover. It is best to stay within arm’s reach of the CFSP. Perhaps here an example is in order. If Israel completely seals the Gaza Strip for a prolonged period of time, statements of condemnations and warnings that Israel’s actions are straining Israel-EU relations would certainly be called for. However, the more egregious the embargo the less you are able to be effective politically. Say that the border remains closed for several weeks and people in Gaza begin to starve. The CFSP does not provide for much more than statements. However, you could warn Israel that the EU is, let’s say, considering sanctions or considering the termination of trade partnerships. Considering taking an action and actually taking action are very different. A consideration is not an action and thus does not violate the policies of the EU. If an event occurs which requires an action that is not provided for under the CFSP, an amendment may be necessary.

The EU is not designed to respond to a crisis. In fact, all of your military assets are designed defensively. The EU has no authorization to act offensively. Trade should be considered your main source of pressure, but you cannot be afraid of a political fight. If you see Israel, Hamas, Iran, or any of the other regional actors abusing human rights you cannot be hesitant to say so. However, there is a difference between shaming and sanctions. The EU is very hesitant to enforce sanctions, partly because the CFSP has to be reconfigured and all member states must vote, and agree, on the new sanctions. This is why the EU’s decision to support economic sanctions on Iran was such a significant step. Even though sanctions were thought to have helped push Iran to the negotiating table regarding its nuclear program, sanctions have generally proven to be an unreliable tool. North Korea developed atomic weapons though it is nearly completely cut off from the world. Saddam Hussein was under some of the toughest sanctions in history; it took two wars to remove him from power. As a politician and diplomat, you must be a pragmatist. To you, the threat of sanctions is likely a more useful tool than the sanctions themselves, and you’ll want to avoid destabilizing policies. You are the chief pragmatist, weighing your options carefully and making careful decisions. Remember, the EU also loses out on large amounts of money when it imposes sanctions, severs political ties, imposes trade restrictions, or limits trade in any other way. You want to make money for the EU.

Playing Ursula von der Leyen

You are the EU's point person for dealing with other foreign nations not immediately implicated in the issue at hand. Think of your primary role as being the person who gains international support for the causes of the EU. You focus on relations with not only foreign nations, but also with the media. Here, your role and those of Borrell and Michel overlap, and this calls for a good amount of planning when making statements to the press, or reacting to a statement. Appearing disorganized is generally viewed as an undesirable thing. By carefully dividing team responsibilities, you can form a united front, without repeating the same point. You, above all, must understand this. While you are generally the point person, part of your job is recognizing when others will make a point more powerfully than you. If Borrell has been working with the Israelis and the Palestinians to make a deal, his announcement of a deal would carry more weight. A good place for you to concentrate is on the publication of press releases and the reaction to the press releases of other countries.

Like the other EU players, you must understand that your political feelings are trumped by the desires of the EU. It is important for you to stay within the CFSP so as not to be seen as pursuing your own political ambitions. Still, you are most certainly not chained by these guidelines. You are seen as one of the most powerful leaders in Europe because of your ability to get things done and to solve problems. As such, you must maintain a very active role. Being viewed as involved in the creation of a solution is key to both your political ambitions and your personality.

Perhaps your most noteworthy trait as a politician is your willingness to take a (calculated) risk. As Minister of Labor and Social Affairs you actively pushed for policies that resulted in a good deal of resistance and criticism from the political right, surprising many who regarded you as fundamentally conservative. When you took over as Defense Minister, you advocated for increased defense spending and greater German involvement with NATO, resulting in your taking ample criticism from the German left. In short, you seem to be willing to take heat and to take risks, as evidenced by your willingness to take on the Defense Ministry in the first place, which probably did not help you to strengthen your position as Merkel’s likely successor, an opportunity which, at least for the moment, has passed you by. You have also been a history-maker, as you were the first woman to be chosen as Germany’s Defense Minister and as President of the Commission of Europe.

It will be interesting to see how Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has been officially named as Merkel’s successor, fares as Defense Minister now that she has been chosen to replace you as Minister of Defense. Perhaps, in the end, your move to Brussels for the role in the EU will be the precursor to a return to Germany to seek the Chancellorship at some later date…only time will tell.









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