ROME – For sure, German politician Ursula von der Leyen isn’t exactly taking office as the first female leader of the European Union under the best of circumstances.
To tick off just a few less-than-auspicious realities, the UK is about to name a prime minister determined to exit the EU even without a formal agreement, the new European parliament contains a record share of Euro-skeptics, and her six-year tenure as Germany’s defense minister is under a cloud due to allegations of improperly awarding bids to outside contractors.
Moreover, von der Leyen only won the job last Tuesday by nine votes out of 733 cast, in part because of objections over how she became a contender in the first place.
In advance of the 2019 race, European politicians of all stripes vowed their next leader would be one of the Spitzenkandidaten, meaning the candidate declared publicly by each of the major parties. Instead, von der Leyen is a classic product of a backroom deal. A protégé of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and never among the declared candidates for the job, her selection was a product of a deal worked out behind closed doors between Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron and then endorsed by their allies in the European parliament.
Nigel Farage, the hardline anti-EU British politician who led his Brexit party to a first-place finish in the UK’s European elections in May, sniffed on twitter after Tuesday’s vote that von der Leyen has “power but no legitimacy.”
Granted, Farage has ideological reasons for being dismissive, but few people seem to regard the result as meaning much. Here’s how “Time” summed it up, under the heading of “One Thing to Say about It at a Dinner Party”:
“Ursula von der Leyen is more of the same. That’s not what a waning Europe actually needs right now… but it’s what it can get. She’s not going to move Europe forward, but she won’t let it fall apart, either.”
Yet however she got there, von der Leyen is now the closest thing Europe has to a commander-in-chief. A pope, meanwhile, is the closest thing Europe has to a chaplain, so one important question for anyone interested in the future of the Old Continent is whether these two figures can hit it off – and, as it turns out, there’s considerable reason to believe the answer is “yes.”
Born in Brussels to a European civil servant father, von der Leyen is of German and British-American descent. (On her mother’s side, her roots are in South Carolina and her ancestors include several governors of the Carolinas). Her family is traditionally Lutheran, though there’s no reason to believe von der Leyen personally is especially religious.
Yet because von der Leyen comes from Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, which historically is the successor of the Catholic Centre Party, she’s not anti-religious either. When it comes to the issues, there are several reasons to believe she’ll see Francis as an ally.
To begin, von der Leyen, like her mentor Merkel, is basically pro-immigrant. As Minister of Labor and Social Affairs in Germany, she supported lowering barriers for foreign workers. In the program she outlined ahead of last Tuesday’s vote, she indicated that she supports reforms in the EU’s “Dublin rules” requiring refugees and asylum-seekers to make their applications in the country where they arrived, potentially sharing the burden of welcoming new arrivals more equitably.
Her selection, therefore, is a further indication that despite the right-wing populist and nationalist tide coursing through European politics, the Old Continent hasn’t completely rejected what Francis likes to call a “culture of welcome.”
For another thing, von der Leyen is pro-family. When she was Germany’s Minister for Family Affairs in 2007 under Merkel, she pioneered a plan to raise the country’s dismally low birth rates by expanding government support for family leave.
Under the plan, the federal government pays mothers or fathers two-thirds of their last net paycheck (up to $2,360) for 12 months as long as they stay at home to take care of the baby. If the other parent takes an additional two months off to care for the child, the government heaps two more months of pay on top. Von der Leyen also pushed for expanded public funding for day care centers for working parents.
Despite opposition from conservatives who objected to the price tag, her initiatives won Catholic support. Joachim Meyer, at the time the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, said of the backlash: “With that kind of politics Germany does its families no justice, and dramatically endangers its own future.”
Certainly for a pope who called two synods of bishops on the family, who’s called the family “the foundation of co-existence and a remedy against social fragmentation,” such attitudes likely will seem congenial.
Finally, von der Leyen is also pro-environment, committing herself in her programmatic speech to making Europe carbon-neutral by 2050 and to creating a European investment bank to fund sustainable “green” projects across the continent. For the pope of Laudato si’, all that has to be music to the ears.
For bonus points, Francis repeatedly has advocated greater empowerment of women, and the fact von der Leyen is the first woman ever to become Europe’s leader ought to be something he applauds.
Granted, there may be flash points too. In Germany, for instance, von der Leyen backed adoption rights for gay couples, while Francis has opposed such measures. However, there’s no reason to believe such differences are unmanageable.
In von der Leyen, in other words, Francis would seem to have a European leader with whom he can do business. Whether that business eventually will turn a political profit, however, is anyone’s guess.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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