Ursula von der Leyen: probably the most highly effective lady on this planet
Ursula von der Leyen ranked first on the list of the 100 most powerful women in the world by Forbes, being considered the most powerful woman on the planet
In her annual address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, in September, Ursula von der Leyen, the first President of the European Commission, made an impactful political statement. She was dressed in a bright yellow blazer and a royal blue blouse and, standing in front of the 12 stars on the European Union flag, looked reminiscent of the Ukrainian flag.
“This is a war on our energy, our economy, our values and our future,” she said, referring to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “This is a duel of autocracy against democracy. I want to make it very clear: sanctions on Russia are here to stay. This is the time for us to solve the problem and not make appeasement.”
Some citizens of European Union countries will face a freezing winter without the Russian natural gas that heats their homes. Others will be in the crossfire if Vladimir Putin decides to expand his territory of aggression. Somehow, von der Leyen has managed to bring these people together, who are making sacrifices and contributing to unity against Putin. The president, elected in 2019, manages the European Union’s annual 300 billion euros and works to achieve consensus with 27 heads of state representing 450 million people.
Last year, von der Leyen was ranked eighth on Forbes’ list of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World. This year, she tops the rankings as a result of her strong and decisive support for Ukraine, as well as her leadership of the European Union during the covid-19 pandemic.
His support for Ukraine was swift and broad. Less than a week after Putin sent the first missiles towards Kyiv in February, the European Commission president vowed to ban Russian central bank business transactions, close European skies to Russian planes and ban media agencies commanded by Putin. In April, she became the highest-ranking EU official to visit Ukraine and meet President Volodymyr Zelensky. in may
“She is living up to her power right now,” says Matthias Matthijs, professor of advanced international studies at Johns Hopkins University and senior European fellow of the Council on International Relations. While von der Leyen wasn’t the only global leader to impose sanctions on Russia, Matthijs says she had a harder job convincing her constituents that this was the right thing to do, because an invasion would do more harm to Europeans than to other countries.
“It needed consensus among 27 Member States that are culturally very different. She’s fabulous at it,” says Anja Langenbucher, director of the Gates Foundation’s European office. The foundation awarded the 2022 president of the European Union its Global Goalkeeper Award for her leadership during the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic – after von der Leyen spearheaded a €800 billion package to alleviate the damage in 2021.
von der Leyen’s trajectory as a doctor and mother of seven children may explain her ability to deal with the lack of harmony. Her first job was as a doctor at a women’s clinic in Germany, where she was born. She didn’t enter politics until her early 40s, when she left local posts to become federal minister for family and children’s affairs in 2005, in which position she helped start important initiatives that would transform the childcare system. From 2013 to 2019, she was the country’s first female minister of defense.
“She was amazing at creating parenting plans and child care facilities that didn’t exist before in Germany,” says Vivien Schmidt, professor of international relations at Boston University and founding director of the university’s Center for European Studies.
The professor explains that von der Leyen’s planning before being elected in 2019 was decisive for her decisive role in the negotiations of the covid-19 damage relief package. Despite seeming, in 2019, an irrelevant problem, the lockdowns and economic uncertainty of 2020 made fundamental von der Leyen’s ideas of dealing with social inequality, strengthening European commitments to the environment and accelerating digital transformation.
“She can understand the moment,” says Schmidt. “She has, I believe, a strong moral sense of what is right.” For now, that means continuing to hold out against Russia. On November 30, von der Leyen proposed creating a special committee to investigate allegations of war crimes against the Russians.
“We brought Europe’s inner strength back to the surface,” said von der Leyen. “We’re going to need all that strength.”