Ursula Leyen becomes Germany’s first female defence minister
‘Heir to Angela Merkel’ appointed Germany’s first female defence minister
By David Crossland, Berlin7:12PM GMT 15 Dec 2013
A mother-of-seven tipped as a potential successor to Angela Merkel has been named Germany’s first female defence minister.
The appointment of Ursula von der Leyen, who previously held posts as labour and family affairs minister, came as a surprise after she had challenged Mrs Merkel’s authority earlier this year and forced her to back a quota for women on company boards.
Mrs Merkel told a news conference in Berlin: “Alongside her focus on social policy, she has always been interested in international affairs and I think that’s a good combination for a German defence minister. It’s an exciting task and a challenging one but I trust she will fulfil it it very, very well.”
“It’s a significant career boost for her and it means she has risen into the circle of potential successors,” Heinrich Oberreuter, a political analyst at the University of Passau, said.
Telegenic and eloquent, the 55-year-old Dr von der Leyen, a trained gynaecologist who only entered politics at 42, is among Germany’s most popular politicians, even though some people resent her as being too perfect because of the ease with which she appears to combine a large family with top political jobs.
She speaks fluent English and French and studied at the London School of Economics in 1978. While there, she used the pseudonym “Rose Ladson” because she was seen as a potential terrorism target for West German left-wing extremists. Her father, Ernst Albrecht, was conservative governor of the state of Lower Saxony at the time.
She faces a difficult task reforming the 184,000-strong armed forces to make them more effective in foreign combat missions. The country suspended conscription in 2011 and is having trouble finding enough recruits. Dr von der Leyen will also have to oversee the complex withdrawal of most of its 3,400 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
German defence ministers are vulnerable because the public remains deeply sceptical about military missions abroad.
Her predecessors have been dogged by problems and scandal. Thomas de Maiziere, a close ally of Mrs Merkel who had hoped to keep the post in the new government, fell out of favour this year after his ministry wasted €500 million on an abandoned contract for Eurohawk surveillance drones. Karl-Theordor zu Guttenberg, popular because of his frequent troop visits to Afghanistan, was forced to resign after 17 months due to allegations that he had plagiarised his doctoral thesis.
Mrs Merkel’s new Grand Coalition government, formed of her Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, contains six SPD ministers, including Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who will succeed Guido Westerwelle as foreign minister. Mr Steinmeier was foreign minister under Mrs Merkel during her first term from 2005 to 2009.
Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD leader, will head a new, combined economy and energy to oversee Germany’s ambitious transition to renewable energy, which has stalled in recent years.
The SPD’s strong presence means that Mrs Merkel’s power to shape domestic policy has been weakened despite her impressive election win in September, when she led her Christian Democrats to their best result since the heady days of unification in 1990.
The key finance ministry will remain in the hands of her ally Wolfgang Schäuble, the wheelchair-bound elder statesman in her cabinet, in a sign that her power to manage the euro crisis will be undiminished.
“Responsibility for European policy will remain in Merkel’s hands,” said Mr Oberreuter. “So we will continue to muddle through in the euro crisis.”