This winter, as the E.U.’s top official worked around the clock in Brussels, she hoped for something unusual: that it would all be for nothing. It had been just over two years since Ursula von der Leyen became President of the European Commission, and with Russian troops massed along Ukraine’s borders, her job was to coordinate with E.U. member states on potential sanctions against Russia. “We were working day and night,” she says “but we hoped we’d never, ever use it.”
By then, the most powerful woman in Europe was used to living at the office. Her position doesn’t come with an official residence, and whenever she isn’t traveling for work or making rare trips home to see her family in Germany, von der Leyen sleeps in a 270-sq.-ft. room right by her desk. That unusual decision proved to be convenient when, 102 days into her term, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020. It soon seemed like the E.U. might fall apart, with fierce disagreements over border closures and tense negotiations on an economic rescue package. “It was very much crisis mode,” she recalls.
It was hardly what von der Leyen was expecting when she became the first woman in history—and the first German in more than 50 years—to lead the European Commission. (The Commission functions as the E.U.’s executive branch but is also the sole body capable of proposing new laws.) The President’s day-to-day job is to get the College of Commissioners—the representatives of the 27 E.U. member states, taking in 477 million people—to agree on E.U. policy and budgets, and to propose legislation. When she took office in December 2019, her focus was on digital and green policies, as well as gender equality.
Instead, the agenda has been dominated by war and disease. Just as the pandemic was beginning to recede—Europe’s COVID-19 death toll now surpasses 2 million—the next crisis began, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. “It was a nightmare,” she says, “but we were prepared, and then we really could act rapidly.”
How rapidly took the world by surprise. Within a week of the invasion, Brussels had already approved three packages of sanctions against Russia, targeting everything from Russian banks to Kremlin-controlled media outlets. For the first time ever, the E.U. said it would send weapons to a country under attack. Dynamics on the continent have continued to shift dizzyingly fast, with Germany shedding decades of pacifism to send heavy weapons to Ukraine, and Finland and Sweden abandoning their long-standing neutrality to apply for NATO membership.
As in the pandemic, von der Leyen has demonstrated “her ability to be a kind of fixer-leader, in terms of brokering solutions and finding a consensus between member states,” says Susi Dennison, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Others see her as not just a consensus-builder but a voice of moral clarity. In April, she was the first Western leader to visit Ukraine after the Russian invasion, addressing President Zelensky as “dear Volodymyr” and handing him an initial questionnaire to join the E.U. “Your fight is our fight,” she said. In Strasbourg the next month, she demanded accountability for Russian war criminals, insisting that President Vladimir Putin must “pay a very high price” for his brutality.
During the course of our two conversations in May, she refuses to even entertain future relations with Moscow. “Without a change in leadership, I do not see an improving relationship,” she says. “Trust is completely broken.”
Critics say Brussels could still do more; that member states paying a total of some $1 billion a day for Russian oil and gas are funding Putin’s brutality. Even so, many acknowledge that the bloc has acted with uncharacteristic speed. “We proved that democracy can deliver,” von der Leyen says.
Given years of deep divisions in Brussels, how long until all this newfound unity frays is an inevitable question. Yet just as the E.U. was born out of the wreckage of the Second World War, a new revitalized European order could well emerge from the current devastation in Ukraine—one that inspires idealism, rather than exhaustion. For von der Leyen, who is leading the bloc at a more significant inflection point than anything since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the task is momentous: “A democracy can always fail if we don’t stand up for it on a daily basis.”
Born in Brussels in 1958, von der Leyen says she grew up taking democracy for granted. Her father Ernst Albrecht worked for the organization that would eventually become the E.U., and she spent her childhood cocooned in an elite world, attending the European School in the Belgian capital and later spending her free time riding horses. As the third of seven children—who would go on to have seven children of her own—she became an expert in balancing competing interests. “What I learned from early on is that I’m doing best if the group is fine,” she says. “I’m a deep believer in constant negotiation.”
In 1971, the family moved to a divided Germany; her father was later elected to state parliament as a politician for the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. Even now, von der Leyen can recall the fear she felt crossing from West Germany into Berlin. “God, you were just scared that anything might happen,” she says, with a shudder. “You felt no protection where the rule of law was concerned.”
Von der Leyen, who moves easily between English, German, and French, is very much a product of the postwar European order. But for a brief period, she was more likely to be found at a Soho pub or a punk concert than hobnobbing with the children of politicians. In 1978, with her father facing threats that she would be kidnapped, she adopted the pseudonym “Rose Ladson,” and went to study at the London School of Economics. “I lived far more than I studied,” she told German newspaper Die Zeit in 2016. Cosmopolitan London gave her “an inner freedom” that she still treasures—though she tells me her love of punk has now waned in favor of classical music and, most of all, Adele.
She eventually returned to Germany, where she met her future husband, physician Heiko von der Leyen, in the University of Göttingen choir. They married in 1986; soon after, she graduated from Hannover Medical School and began working as a gynecologist. In 1992, the couple moved to California with their three children when Heiko was offered a role on Stanford University’s faculty. Ursula had given up work by then, but was surprised at how ready Stanford was to support them with childcare. Back in Germany, she says the expectation was that a good mother stays home with the kids. (That stigma persists to this day; in 2019, two-thirds of working mothers in Germany with a child under 18 worked part-time, rather than full time.) “It was very modern and what I took back home was: never again will anybody give me a bad conscience about wanting to work and have kids.”
She became involved in local politics for the CDU after they returned to Germany in 2006. Though she disliked being compared to her father, she says his experience in politics meant it always seemed like a viable career path. In 2005, Angela Merkel appointed her the Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. A protégé of Merkel, von der Leyen became a rising star in Germany and proved to be an unexpectedly radical force for the center-right party. She introduced a paid parental-leave scheme that offered two additional months for fathers who took leave, and increased the number of state-funded day-care centers for children under 3. As her career took off, her husband assumed much of the childcare responsibilities. She was always under pressure to explain how she did it. “Never would you ask a male minister: How are you managing with your seven children at home? I hated that.”
In 2013, she was appointed Germany’s first female Defense Minister, widely considered the hardest job in Berlin, not to mention the most stereotypically “male.” The woman who was touted as Germany’s next leader—indeed, her 2015 biography had the title Chancellor in Reserve—was in a precarious position by 2019, tainted by a series of scandals. It was French President Emmanuel Macron who saved her career, putting her name forward when negotiations for a new President of the European Commission were blocked. Von der Leyen emerged as a surprise winner—thanks to a controversial backroom deal that got her one of Europe’s top jobs when she hadn’t even campaigned for it. By then, she was such a divisive figure at home that Germany was the only E.U. member state to abstain from the vote to nominate her.
She is reluctant to dwell on that period. “You learn a lot where leadership is concerned by not only being successful, but also if things go wrong,” she says simply. Though she’s the first woman to serve as President of the Commission, she says the world she now inhabits is “much easier” than the defense ministry. Even so, she isn’t immune from workplace sexism. Last year, video footage went viral showing Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan taking two chairs laid out at a summit, while von der Leyen was left standing, her discomfort clear. She later made an impassioned speech calling out the sexist implications of the “Sofagate” incident. “It is a situation that women face a zillion times silently,” she tells me. She learned to deal with these “small humiliations,” in part by watching Merkel cope with intense misogyny over the years: “She was always better in the topic; she always knew more. And later on, nobody questioned her.”
It’s a strategy von der Leyen deploys now. She seems preternaturally calm, no matter how tough things get around her. (Resorting to national stereotypes, British media have even called her a “German ice queen.”) She credits age, but also knowledge and experience. The more she reads—on vaccine production, on energy, on export controls—the easier it is to be confident of her position. “Being calm does not come as a gift. It comes with hard work.”
Even before taking office, von der Leyen knew hard work would be needed to transform the E.U. What she proposed back in September 2019 was a new “geopolitical Commission”—a stronger E.U. that would be more assertive on the international stage, including leading on the climate crisis and expanding its security role. The challenge is that the E.U. is fundamentally a rules-based organization, which makes it less nimble for the kind of geopolitical maneuvering von der Leyen might envision. The clearest example is her latest push to fast-track Ukraine into the E.U., which she has framed as a moral duty. During her April visit to Ukraine, she declared: “Ukraine belongs in the European family.” Yet the way the bloc is set up means the process will almost certainly take years.
Experts say that after a few stumbles during the pandemic—including over a slow COVID-19 vaccine rollout—von der Leyen has emerged as a leader adept at judging what Europe needs in a given moment. “She’s much more comfortable in this multilateral atmosphere,” says William Drozdiak, an expert in European affairs at the Wilson Center and author of the 2017 book Fractured Continent: Europe’s Crises and the Fate of the West. “She recognizes the limits of the role and is playing it very effectively.”
Those limits are that her job is often as much about having a bold vision as it is about being flexible enough to reach a compromise—something she tells me she loves. “I am only powerful as long as I create majorities. That’s the humbling part in democracies, and the wonderful part of it, because you always look for solutions that are good for many.”
All that talk of democracy doesn’t sit well with some. “The E.U. is a profoundly undemocratic community of democracies,” argues Hans Kundnani, director of the Europe program at London-based think tank Chatham House. The union’s executives are appointed by governments, not put in office by the votes of citizens; its institutional proceedings—including its court—are shrouded in secrecy; and its rules are astonishingly bureaucratic. (The acquis communautaire, the “rule book” of the E.U., runs to 90,000 pages.) Voters across the continent are profoundly disengaged as a result. Turnout at European elections fell steadily for the past four decades before rebounding in 2019 to its highest levels since 1994—a still low 50.7%. One in 3 European voters now backs parties that are critical of, or outrightly hostile to, the E.U., a doubling in the past two decades. Crisis mode has become something of a default for the bloc, which has struggled to stay united in the face of a debt crisis at the turn of the decade, an influx of refugees, the shock of Britain’s vote to leave, and the pandemic.
Von der Leyen believes the answer to all this is ever closer integration, wheeling out a metaphor popular in Brussels: “The E.U. is like a bicycle. If it stands still, it will fall.” If integration stops, the argument goes, the European project itself would collapse. She points out that Britain’s departure from the bloc hasn’t spurred other countries to do the same and that public opinion of the E.U. has grown warmer in recent years. As she sees it, the future of the union depends on Ukraine. “The Ukrainians, in an incredibly brave way, are fighting for our values and democratic principles,” she says. “We’re never perfect in democracies, but to have principles—the protection of minorities, the dignity of the human being, freedom of the press—is beautiful.”
Exactly what makes those values European, as opposed to ones embraced by all kinds of liberal democracies, is murky. In 2019, von der Leyen provoked outrage when she proposed a new E.U. role—“vice president for protecting our European way of life”—for the position overseeing migration policy. The language was criticized for echoing xenophobic tropes that view refugees from nonwhite, non-Christian countries as a threat to European identity. (The position now uses the word promoting rather than protecting.) Kundnani believes that what has really come to define the E.U. in the past decade is not a common set of values but a shared perception of external threats—from refugees to Trump to Russia—and that von der Leyen has framed those threats in explicitly “civilizational terms.”
Others say von der Leyen’s tenure has been defined more by her pragmatism than by a focus on European identity. Analyst Dennison cites Brussels’ warmer approach to Poland since the war began, despite its violation of judicial independence, as an example of how von der Leyen is simply trying to secure the necessary votes to push through deals. “She has been part of ensuring that these very complex structures have been able to gear up during a series of quite unprecedented crises,” Dennison says, “but I don’t think she can ever be the figurehead for a rebirth of European democracy.”
A rebirth of European democracy doesn’t seem imminent. Every day is a new test for the union. Faced with the biggest movement of people on the continent since the Second World War, countries are struggling to provide homes and jobs for the 6.9 million mostly Ukrainian women and children who have fled abroad. Sanctions are starting to bite, with soaring energy costs and food prices, and inflation in the euro area hitting its highest level since the currency was created in 1999. Already Brussels has had to effectively exempt Hungary—whose right-wing Putin-friendly leader Viktor Orban just won a fourth term—from its plan to embargo Russian oil.
Even so, von der Leyen is reassured that the priorities she set at the start of her term—digitalization, economic resilience, and climate action—are still urgent today. This is especially true of the European Green Deal, the strategy she launched that led to all 27 member states committing in 2020 to making the E.U. a net-zero emitter by 2050. “The whole world, including the E.U., should have acted yesterday,” she says. “But we are a world leader.” In July 2021, the E.U. adopted proposals to ensure that the bloc’s policies set it on the path to reduce emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels.
Von der Leyen says the conflict in Ukraine has pushed politicians who are usually lukewarm on climate action to act fast. “One thing is for sure: this war means that the E.U. is completely diversifying away from Russian fossil fuels,” she says. “Russia is losing its biggest client, and for good.” Even so, she’s aware that the war is not only having a devastating impact on the climate—waging a war is highly fossil-fuel intensive—but also that soaring energy prices can quickly turn the tide of public opinion. Ideally, she says, high prices nudge consumers to choose something else, like renewable energy. But vulnerable, low-income households and businesses don’t have that kind of flexibility to maneuver, and governments need to subsidize them. “The transition will only work if it’s socially balanced,” she says.
For now, balance in Europe seems hard to maintain. Amid all the turmoil, she struggles to take the long view—whether envisioning how the next weeks or months of war might unfold, or imagining where her own career might go once her term at the Commission is up in 2024. She is instead focused on the day to day. “It is stressful and a lot of pressure,” she says. “But whenever I feel like, I’m exhausted, I’ve had it, my next thought is: the people in Ukraine cannot say, I’m exhausted, I’ve had it. I am here to manage this crisis. Then we’ll see.”
—With reporting by Leslie Dickstein/New York