Picture this scene in the coming weeks, the newly elected PM, Boris Johnson, walks down the hall of the EU Parliament in Brussels after months of publically bashing the institution.
He enters the negotiating room in which he aspires to leave with the improved exit deal that he has promised during his leadership campaign and is greeted by Ursula Von der Leyen, the elected incoming Head of the European Commission. However, unfortunately for the British electorate a similar time zone is pretty much all these leaders hold in common.
Although not entirely free from controversy herself, Von der Leyen’s political career stands in contrast to Mr Johnson, with a track record of rarely pivoting and staunch conservatism occasionally at the cost of her own popularity and against the will of her own party.
Von der Leyen acedes the post having been the only minister to have served in Merkel’s cabinet since she came to power in 2005. During that time, she has developed a fierce reputation for ambitious reforms and pushing forward her own agenda, earning the nickname of ‘shotgun Urschi’ amongst opposition for her bossy nature.
Having been elected to Merkel’s cabinet as Minister of Family
Affairs in 2005, a position seemingly well suited to a mother of seven, she famously forced Merkel to drop her opposition to boardroom quotas for women and to implement a generous parental leave scheme. Von der Leyen also applied widespread reform during her most recent tenure as Defence Minister, being highly critical of the German Army and completely transforming outdated protocols such as the daily counting of equipment by hand. Despite the purported benefits of these reforms, she has faced significant criticism regarding the €150m given out, opposition parties hinting at corruption within the Ministry.
However, despite the lingering controversy, Von der Leyen seems to be well positioned to implement changes within the EU. Given widespread criticism of EU policies amidst the rise of right-wing populism, she will need to draw upon the strong backing of the EU’s national leaders who nominated her as a compromise after their initial candidates had failed to gain sufficient support.
The disjunction between Von der Leyen and hard Brexiteers who have domi
nated UK politics since the referendum result was there for all to see during her accession speech. As she declared EU membership to be “the most precious thing we have,'' she was greeted by a chorus of heckles from the Brexit Party’s MEP’s and crudely defined by Nigel Farage moments later to be promoting a “centralised, undemocratic, updated form of communism”.
Those wishing to avoid a chaotic no-deal Brexit can take some solace in her recent comments that this arrangement would have “massively negative consequences” for both sides and that she would do everything within her power to ensure an orderly Brexit. However, her opposing stance to Boris was also made clear by her supporting statements, suggesting that Teresa May’s deal was not “dead” (as Boris argues) but would form the basis going forward.
Having studied at LSE, Von der Leyen described London as “the epitome of modernity: freedom, the joy of life, trying everything”. Let’s hope she remembers these happy memories going into Brexit negotiations, if Boris thought he was walking into the room with a pushover he will find himself sorely mistaken.