Germans bemused as embattled defence minister given top EU job
European Union leaders have selected Ursula von der Leyen, the German defence minister, as the European Commission president, sparking bemusement in Germany, where she is not held in high esteem.
The former opposition SPD leader Martin Schulz in Germany was quick to condemn the appointment.
The mother of seven was “the weakest minister in the government”, said the ex-European Parliament president. “Apparently such a performance suffices to become head of the commission.”
MEPs from Germany’s Green Party are threatening to veto the appointment in the European Parliament.
“It’s an unparalleled act of political trickery,” said Sigmar Gabriel, another former SPD leader.
Some of von der Leyen’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) colleagues were pleased she was leaving. “It’s good for the army that she’s going,” said one CDU MP. “Her years as minister have been really hard for the armed forces.”
Von der Leyen, who was born in Brussels in 1958, is disliked by many German generals and few ministers have generated so many negative headlines over recent years. The job of defence minister is seen as an “ejector seat” for German politicians.
The ministry is facing a parliamentary investigation over allegations of improper consultant contract awards.
There is also a scandal involving the Gorch Fock (pictured), a ministry sailing ship used for training. Germany’s audit office reported this year that the costs for repairing the ship had risen from €10 million to €135 million.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said Von der Leyen had received the “strong backing” from her fellow EU leaders, partly because of achievements coordinating a Nato mission in the Aegean to tackle the 2015 refugee crisis. She also helped form a multinational force in Lithuania for Nato’s “enhanced forward presence”.
It is the first time since Walter Hallstein in the 1950s and 1960s that a German would be commission president.
Von der Leyen would be the first woman to hold the post that sets the EU’s policy agenda.
Three of her coalition partners in the rival SPD issued a statement on Tuesday challenging the nomination, implying it breached their 2018 coalition agreement with the CDU. They complained that the three candidates selected by the European Parliament had been ditched in favour of someone who had not stood for the role.
The objections meant Merkel was forced to abstain in the vote in the European Council, which represents national governments.
The SPD later dropped its opposition.
The 1933 Gorch Fock has undergone costly repairs. Picture credit: Wikimedia