Why Ursula von der Leyen is the ‘world’s most powerful woman’

The president of the European Commission has earned the title bestowed on her by Forbes magazine

News magazines from Time to Austria’s Profil have put Volodymyr Zelenskiy on their covers as Person of the Year 2022. The business weekly Forbes’s choice was a little more surprising: naming Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, “the world’s most powerful woman”.

A good choice. After a weak start three years ago, the former German defence minister is becoming Europe’s crisis manager par excellence. With her somewhat formal, stiff demeanour, Von der Leyen may have won few hearts and minds, but during the pandemic, and especially since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February, she has established a reputation for getting things done in Europe. VDL, as she is also known, “is a machine”, a senior official in the commission told me. “She’s tough, focused and extremely efficient.”

The “Qatar-gate” corruption scandal unfolding in the European parliament may have put Von der Leyen on the spot for not having proposed a stronger EU ethics body. But that criticism is unfair. She has worked on it, but the parliament has so far rejected the much stricter rules that apply to the commission. For EU governments, which find parliament a nuisance anyway and are in no mood to subject their own institution – the law-making European Council – to the commission’s transparency standards either, VDL’s worth lies elsewhere. In a turbulent world, Europe’s self-perception – as a peaceful, values-based community with a relatively open market and scant geopolitical clout – is sorely tested and requires urgent adjustment. Without the commission they cannot even begin to do this.

With Russia waging an economic and information war against the EU, China trying to squeeze political capital out of economic dependencies and the US embarking on a protectionist path, Europe’s successful model needs protection. So Europe’s leaders are now taking steps towards “more Europe” that they were previously unwilling to take. During the pandemic, they agreed on joint vaccine procurement and large financial injections to stricken economies. Since February, they have beefed up common security and border controls, welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees, relaunched the EU’s enlargement process and moved to secure common energy supplies. Meanwhile, Europe is seeking to become the world’s first carbon-neutral bloc.

European governments do not like to “Europeanise” powers held at national level – unless, as the founding father Jean Monnet once said, there is a crisis and “they do not know what to do”. Now is such a moment. National leaders face huge problems they cannot solve on their own. They look for joint solutions, with Von der Leyen both service-provider and midwife.

The commission’s first female president’s secret is neither that she occupies an unchallenged powerful position, nor her charisma. EU decision-making has become increasingly intergovernmental in recent years, with a corresponding loss in power for “Brussels”. The member nations’ leaders may agree to European solutions, even on issues that are politically sensitive for their citizens, such as security, monetary policy, health or migration. But they want to keep their implementing body, the commission, on a short leash.

They constantly ask the commission to submit to them draft proposals for new European laws and regulations. At the same time, they weaken EU institutions – and often bypass parliament – by cutting budgets and keeping control of the implementation of policies to themselves. During the pandemic, they agreed to jointly borrow more than €700bn to support affected countries, while insisting that all 27 heads of state and government co-decide what to allocate to whom. The same is now happening with energy security, migration and foreign policy. Last week, all 27 had to sign off on an €18bn aid package for Ukraine – which Hungary threatened to veto unless its own funding from Brussels was unblocked.

Thus, the EU is becoming one big bazaar for national governments, complete with haggling and dramatic walkouts. This renders compromises more byzantine and complex, less transparent and less accountable. But more than ever, member states need the expertise of the European Commission, legal and otherwise, to draw up common policies, plans and compromises. Von der Leyen is supplying this around the clock.

A commission official tells me she is “better” than her famous predecessor Jacques Delors. This remark underlines how the EU is evolving. Delors drove the single market and monetary union, sealed in the Maastricht Treaty. He was a visionary. Von der Leyen is more of a pragmatist. Member states demand more than ever of Brussels – from cheap gas and tougher anti-corruption rules to a new state aid policy to prevent companies moving to the US.

To deliver on all these things, Von der Leyen oversees the commission like a military operation. She sleeps in a small space next to her office (for which she pays rent), regularly asking staff on Friday evenings to prepare reports for Sunday morning meetings. In policy terms, she runs a tight ship, keeping everything close to her chest (including Brexit talks), often leaving other commissioners in the dark. This does not make her popular among staff. Employees complain they are chronically overworked. Vacancies stay open for months because appointments have not had VDL’s imprimatur.

This, however, is how the former physician delivers. National diplomats, always ready to scapegoat the commission, now praise it for giving them the service they demand. Occasionally, she uses that trust to steer them as in the old days when the commission was a more powerful force. She has nudged them, for example, towards controversial decisions they disliked – such as withholding more than half of Hungary’s European funding for violating the EU’s rule of law conditionality. This principled stance has earned Von der Leyen much respect in the parliament, whose members had started the first procedures against Hungary years ago and were keen to see them bear fruit in the end.

Herding the 27 governments towards common decisions should be a task for the president of the European Council, Charles Michel. He commands little respect in European capitals, even less in Brussels. So heads of government often turn to the commission president to perform this role too. In VDL, Europe seems finally to be getting that single telephone number that Henry Kissinger always said he needed if he wanted to call Europe.