Top E.U. Official Becomes an Unexpected Wartime Leader

BRUSSELS — When Ursula von der Leyen, a former German defense minister and medical doctor, assumed her role as president of the European Commission in mid-2019, few people outside of Germany knew who she was.

The first woman to ascend to the position and the first person to occupy the office without having previously served as a head of government, she was unusual in the patriarchal, conservative power structure of the European Union. Yet on Wednesday, three years after her appointment, she seemed in comfortable command of it all as she delivered her third State of the Union address to the European Parliament.

She laid out a plan for deep market interventions to help Europe weather a massive energy crisis unleashed by Russia turning off the natural gas taps to punish the European Union for supporting Ukraine. And she doubled down on her decisiveness to stay the course against Russia, no matter the cost.

“I want to make it very clear — the sanctions are here to stay,” she vowed. “This is the time for us to show resolve, not appeasement.”

As Ukrainians have put up a dogged fight for their country, the Russian invasion has upended life in the world’s wealthiest, most comfortably peaceful group of nations: the European Union.

It has also recast the head of the European Commission a vast bureaucracy manned by experts who draw up policy in many crucial areas of life affecting E.U. citizens, sometimes over and above their national governments — into an unexpected wartime leader.

“She is seizing the moment,” said Ian Lesser, who heads the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund, a prominent research institute. “It’s something of a departure from previous presidents of the commission. It feels presidential.”

Without a country to rule or voters to woo or answer to, it’s hard to tell who her constituency is. And yet, Ms. von der Leyen has used her office as head of a 32,000-strong civil service and a budget of hundreds of billions of euros to rally the bloc around standing up to Russia, ushering in the most extensive sanctions ever adopted and complementing U.S. efforts to support Ukraine.

Ms. von der Leyen meeting with President Zelesnky of Ukraine in Kyiv in April, in a photo released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Service.Credit…Ukrainian Presidential Press Service, via Shutterstock

On Wednesday, she stood, in a yellow-and-blue outfit to match the colors of the Ukrainian flag in a visual statement of support, and with the stars of the European Union standard perfectly arranged like a halo behind her, and spoke for an hour about courage, victory, and sacrifice. It was a carefully designed appearance replete with symbolism.

“This is not only a war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine,” she said. “This is a war on our energy, a war on our economy, a war on our values and a war on our future.”

“This is about autocracy against democracy. And I stand here with the conviction that with courage and solidarity, Putin will fail and Europe will prevail,” she added, referring to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

She stopped for applause as a television camera panned and settled, in a tight frame, on a composed but emotional Olena Zelenska, Ukraine’s first lady who had traveled from her country’s capital, Kyiv, to Strasbourg, France as Ms. von der Leyen’s guest of honor.

The State of the War

  • Dramatic Gains for Ukraine: After Ukraine’s offensive in its northeast drove Russian forces into a chaotic retreat, Ukrainian leaders face critical choices on how far to press the attack.
  • How the Strategy Formed: The plan that allowed Ukraine’s recent gains began to take shape months ago during a series of intense conversations between Ukrainian and U.S. officials.
  • Putin’s Struggles at Home: Russia’s setbacks in Ukraine have left President Vladimir V. Putin’s image weakened, his critics emboldened and his supporters looking for someone else to blame.
  • Southern Counteroffensive: Military operations in the south have been a painstaking battle of river crossings, with pontoon bridges as prime targets for both sides. So far, it is Ukraine that has advanced.

Ms. von der Leyen, 63, has over the past year shown that she is willing to use the full range of symbols and instruments of power at her disposal to place herself at the center of Europe’s response to Russia’s war on Ukraine.

With the guard changing in Germany, the new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has been busy building a coalition and managing the most important change of policy in a generation. At the same time, President Emmanuel Macron of France recently endured a bruising election season. That has left the two key decision-making centers in the European Union quieter usual.

And that has provided an opportunity for Ms. von der Leyen to seize the limelight.

Ms. von der Leyen speaking at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday. She leads roughly 32,000 civil servants and oversees a budget of hundreds of billions of euros.Credit…Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA, via Shutterstock

To President Biden, she is simply “Ursula,” a partner he has turned to repeatedly, often publicly, in recent months as the European leader of choice at a time of intensive trans-Atlantic coordination.

“She is very aware of the vast improvement of trans-Atlantic relations and ascribes a great deal of this to her close relationship with Joe Biden,” said Mr. Lesser of the German Marshall Fund.

But Ms. von der Leyen’s metamorphosis has come at a cost.

She has come under criticism for alienating many of her top officials, known as commissioners, by centralizing control over policy and for not consulting more widely when she drafts policy.

“It’s no secret that she has a reputation for being a great centralizer, in the sense of having a small team around her,” said Paul Adamson, a seasoned Brussels consultant of four decades who is now chairman of Forum Europe, an events company.

“People’s sensitivities might be offended that she mightn’t consult as much as they’d like, but she’s getting things done,” he added.

She has been particularly criticized by European Parliament members for mishandling Hungary and its growing role as a spoiler in the E.U. decision-making process, most recently breaking ranks with peers to cut direct deals with the Kremlin and Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned natural gas company.

But ultimately, it is not the commission that makes decisions in the E.U.

The 27 member states must back her, and at times, they haven’t, for example when she tried to push through an ambitious oil embargo against Russia in May.

President Biden has often turned to Ms. von der Leyen during the past few months for conversations from China to Ukraine.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

For members of other institutions in the European Union’s complex governance structure, Ms. von der Leyen is both admired and criticized.

“I think her style of leadership is aloof,” said Sophie in’t Veld, a prominent liberal European Parliament member from the Netherlands who has criticized what she sees as Ms. von der Leyen’s avoidance of parliamentary scrutiny.

Ms. von der Leyen’s visibility, in comparison to her predecessors, is a double-edged sword, Ms. in’t Veld added.

“She is exercising the role in a more assertive way and more presidential way, more visible,” she said. “It’s good that she is giving a face to the E.U. so that people can’t say that it’s made up of faceless bureaucrats any more. But at the same time, it’s also about ‘me me me.’”

In a rare public mutiny against a commission president, her top lieutenants — European Commission vice presidents — openly disagreed with her when, to reward Poland for its full-throttled support of Ukraine, Ms. von der Leyen decided that the bloc should put aside concerns about the country’s governance and grant it billions in E.U. funds.

And she is locked into a seemingly frosty relationship with the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, who heads the other key E.U. institution tasked with coordinating the decisions and forging consensus among E.U. national governments. The council is the forum for the democratically elected governments and can be at times at odds with the commission, which is a body of civil servants.

Alice Bah Kuhnke, a Swedish Green party member of the European Parliament who voted against Ms. von der Leyen’s appointment in 2019, said she was impressed by her when, after the murder of George Floyd, a Black American man who was killed by a police officer while being detained, Ms. von der Leyen invited her to a private conversation.

“The fire I saw in her eyes was genuine,” said Ms. Kuhnke, who is one of the few Black European Parliament members.

“Nobody can speak to her for more than five minutes and not realize how intelligent she is and how well-prepared she is,” she said.

But she also said she had been disappointed by Ms. von der Leyen’s willingness to compromise on her principles in the name of E.U. unity.

“Maybe we haven’t seen the best of her yet,” she said.

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