The long-serving German defense chief has all of a sudden come to the forefront as a future head of the European Union’s executive branch. That might be a little unexpected, as she was not even on the list of potential candidates until recently. Yet, after marathon debates the European leaders agreed that she would be the best fit for the position previously held by Jean-Claude Juncker.
Von der Leyen is a political veteran and the only person to have held a ministerial position in all four successive governments of Chancellor Angela Merkel since the German leader first came to power back in 2005.
Minister of lack of defense
Yet, her ministerial record is far from flawless. Over the past six years, during which von der Leyen headed the Defense Ministry, Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, have become a steady source of news about planes that can’t fly, tanks that break down, and vessels that are unfit for maritime operations.
In autumn 2017, Germany was literally left without its entire submarine fleet as all of the ships turned out to be either undergoing maintenance or in dire need of repairs. More than half of the Bundeswehr’s tanks were revealed to be unfit for service during the same year.
Dozens of assault rifles and pistols, as well as tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, have simply been stolen from the Bundeswehr on von der Leyen’s watch. The year 2014 – her second year in office – saw the biggest amount of equipment go missing, resulting in the loss of 21 weapons and more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition.
Admittedly, von der Leyen didn’t inherit the military in the best shape, nor had she defense budgets like NATO expects its allies to have, but neither was she particularly effective at overcoming the German military’s woes.
Despite boosting Germany’s defense expenditure from some $38 billion to almost $50 billion over her tenure, she still did not quite succeed in modernizing the German armed forces. In 2018, it was reported that her ministry had still failed to find enough money to fund a long-awaited modernization of the Puma infantry fighting vehicles, while the bulk of the freshly purchased new hardware is not ready for service.
Von der Leyen also struggled to replenish the Bundeswehr’s ranks as it has been facing a personnel shortage ever since the abolition of conscription in 2011. This situation prompted the military to come up with increasingly unconventional methods of resolving the issue, ranging from a controversial intensive social media campaign aimed at teenagers to suggestions involving the recruitment of people from other EU states.
Fighting US wars, helping US allies
Despite the mounting problems within her domain, von der Leyen has consistently supported the idea of an increased German military presence in foreign nations, sending German troops for peacekeeping missions to countries like Somalia, South Sudan and Mali. In 2016, Germany toed the line to join the US-led coalition fighting in Syria and Iraq. In March 2018, she told the German forces stationed in Afghanistan that her ministry does not plan to bring them home anytime soon – just after Berlin decided to ramp up the troop numbers in the war-torn country.
This projection of power comes at a cost, of course. German soldiers often return from foreign missions physically or mentally crippled, as was recently reported by the German daily, Bild.
In late April, the German media reported that the Defense Ministry would launch a training program for Saudi officers, as it apparently remained unfazed by Riyadh’s brutal bombing campaign in Yemen, which killed and maimed hundreds of civilians. Von der Leyen herself was instrumental in bringing this project to life as it was apparently made possible after her visit to Saudi Arabia back in 2016.
Under her watch, Germany also agreed to become a key troops provider for NATO’s ‘Enhanced Forward Presence’ – a military buildup in Eastern Europe justified by Russia’s alleged ‘assertiveness.’ Moscow sees hundreds of additional NATO troops on its doorstep as an aggressive infringement on its national security and a breach of the spirit of the tacit agreement it had with the bloc after end of the Cold War.
Champion of a liberal United States of Europe
What might be of most importance for von der Leyen’s nomination is that she espouses all the mainstream liberal views that Brussels holds dear and opposes the nationalist blowback that has been sending a chill down the spine of the Eurobureaucracy for the past several years.
In 2013, she campaigned, although unsuccessfully, for a statutory quota on women in supervisory boards of German companies, which would force businesses to have at least 40 percent women on their boards by 2023. She also supported equal adoption rights for same-sex couples.
During her tenure as labor minister, von der Leyen lobbied for lower barriers to immigration, arguing that Germany needs a larger workforce. Two years later, at the height of the refugee crisis, she lashed out at the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for his restrictive asylum policies by saying that his actions were “not acceptable” and violated “the European rules.”
She is also a strong proponent of deep European integration. In 2011, she said she would like to see the emergence of a “United States of Europe” built on the example of Germany or the US, which are both federal states. In 2015, she reaffirmed her commitment to that idea by saying that “perhaps not my children, but then my grandchildren will experience a United States of Europe.”
SHARE THIS POST