The European Commission (EC) has officially elected a new president. Having served as Germany’s defence minister since 2013, Ms Ursula von der Leyen will fill the office come November.
Born in Brussels and raised speaking French and English, Ms von der Leyen will become the first woman to occupy the EC presidential office when she replaces current Commission President Jean Claude Juncker this coming November. A fierce believer in European integration and a close contact of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ms von der Leyen’s appointment has come as a surprise—government leaders had initially agreed to nominate a president from among the pool of candidates proposed by the European Parliament’s political factions. When it became clear that those candidates had little chance of victory, leaders shifted and instead proposed von der Leyen’s appointment.
As a member of Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party who won over her leftist counterparts with promises to secure both a minimum wage and a path to a carbon-neutral Europe, von der Leyen occupies an intense political space in the EU. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, a qualified gynecologist, and a mother to seven children who possesses a political pedigree of her own. Her father’s civil service heavily influenced her affection for the European Union from a young age. Working her way up through the CDU to eventually hold cabinet roles, which culminated in her defence ministry position, von der Leyen carved a distinct path for herself—sometimes one that earned her quite a bit of criticism.
Even if the current defence minister does not enjoy complete and total support from her German constituents due to her more recent track record there, she has succeeded both in establishing her feminism as a cornerstone of her policy objectives, and in distancing herself from isolationist forces both in Europe and abroad.
Her criticism of US President Donald Trump along those lines has been referenced as a potential cause for strife between the United States and Europe, which could complicate the critical bilateral trading relationship they enjoy. Heralded as “Trump’s new EU foil,” von der Leyen has been vocal about Trump’s discussions of NATO—which she called ‘immature’—and has expressed doubt over what she referred to as his seeming desire to become Vladimir Putin’s ‘best buddy.’ The current defence minister has even implied that Trump may be uncomfortable with strong female leaders. When asked about the tenuous relationship between Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, von der Leyen told Spiegel that “A woman like Angela Merkel, a globally respected head of government with a long experience, probably did not exist in his [Trump’s] worldview until now.”
Von der Leyen has also maintained tough stances on both China and Russia. While Trump and the rest of the US conglomerate may well agree with her take on Beijing, Moscow is a bit of a loaded subject for Trump. His lighthearted defence of Russian campaign meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections, as well as his recent jokes to Putin about getting rid of journalists in both countries are only two of the many times Trump has gone out of his way to publicly side with the Kremlin. Though fewer and fewer people would challenge her outspoken criticism of President Trump as his executive occupation drags on and he embroils himself and his administration in political scandal after political scandal, von der Leyen’s clear opposition to Trump may prove to be a barrier to the transatlantic cooperation that both economies need.
Additionally, the Commission President-elect enters the office during a critical juncture in European (and world) history: the ongoing #MeToo era. Taking place first in the United States and then travelling across the world, the movement aimed at eradicating sexual violence and providing community-based support for survivors took over the European institutions in 2017. What had broadly been #MeToo on social media sites became tailored specifically to the EU with the creation of the #MeTooEP hashtag and corresponding website. There, people who survived sexual violence—ranging from sexism and sexual harassment all the way to sexual assault and rape—while working within the European Parliament can access a platform that lets them share their testimonies and receive support from those who have been through similar experiences.
Even though the first allegations began surfacing two years ago, new reports continue to barrage the European offices—largely because the sentiment towards sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault has not changed. As recently as May 2019, it was reported that 9 out of every 10 women has experienced sexual harassment on Brussels’ streets and, in Belgium as a whole, nearly 98% of women have experienced sexual harassment in a public space. Those figures obviously do not even account for the sexual violence and/or harassment women and other vulnerable groups face in the rest of Europe. While many rightly tout Ms von der Leyen’s assent from political dynasty and laude her ability to appease opposing parties, it seems that few are questioning how strong she will be on denouncing the culture of harassment and assault within the EU institutions.
To what extent will her feminism implore her to join those—and not just speak about—ending the systematic mistreatment and abuse of women and other vulnerable groups both within European government offices and throughout continental Europe as a whole?
Millions of people within the EU and across the world remain allied against the normalisation of sexual harassment and abuse of power. Others—including some of the very nationalist and populist pundits who pushed her appointment through—deny the issue’s relevance altogether or claim that any accusations of sexual harassment or assault must not be taken seriously, as they are more than likely attributable to simple “cultural differences” among Europe’s diverse public.
Either way, von der Leyen’s feminism will face what may be its most intense test yet. She does not seem daunted. Boldly addressing violence against women and calling for “full gender equality,” Ms von der Leyen’s acceptance speech carried triumphant, confident tones and inspired many to believe she will effectively lead now Europe toward its ever-present goal of a fairer and more equal union. In her words, “Since 1958, there have been 183 commissioners. Only 35 were women. That is less than 20 percent. We represent half of our population. We want our fair share.”
Under this Commission President-elect, we very well may get there.