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Newly appointed German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen is one of the most popular members in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. (FABRIZIO BENSCH/REUTERS)
Newly appointed German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen is one of the most popular members in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. (FABRIZIO BENSCH/REUTERS)

Paul Waldie

German defence minister bruited as possible successor to Merkel Add to ...

As Angela Merkel begins her third term as German Chancellor, many eyes will be focused on the country’s new Defence Minister: Ursula von der Leyen.

A medical doctor and mother of seven, Ms. von der Leyen became Germany’s first female defence minister when the new coalition government was sworn in on Tuesday, setting her up as a potential successor to Ms. Merkel, whom many believe will not seek another term.

“It’s a test, basically,” said Joerg Forbrig, a Berlin-based analyst with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank. “It’s a ministry where more often than not ministers fail. But those who do succeed in this job can become chancellor and [former chancellor] Helmut Schmidt was the best example.”

It won’t be an easy task. The German military is going through wrenching changes, with budget cuts, reductions in the number of soldiers and plans to close or merge several bases.

It is also still reeling from a scandal involving a decision by Ms. von der Leyen’s predecessor, Thomas de Maizière, to spend the equivalent of $876-million on a surveillance drone system from the U.S., only to discover that the European Aviation Safety Agency wouldn’t allow it to fly in Europe.

There are several other expensive and controversial projects still under consideration, including a new naval helicopter that is over budget and having technical issues, as well as costly plans for additional fighter jets and transport planes.

Ms. von der Leyen will have to manage the withdrawal of German forces from Afghanistan next year and address growing calls internationally for Germany to play a bigger role on the world stage. She’ll also have to cope with a military that is decidedly male. Only one of the armed forces’ 200 senior officers is female.

It’s a tall order for the 55-year-old politician who is known for speaking her mind and who has risen quickly through the ranks of the governing Christian Democratic Union.

Ms. von der Leyen was born in Brussels, where her father, Ernst Albrecht, a long-time CDU member and prime minister of the state of Lower Saxony, worked for the European Commission. She spent much of her teenage years under police protection as left-wing groups targeted politicians and their families.

At one point, she had to move to London for security reasons and live with an uncle under an assumed name of Rose Ladson. A top student who speaks German, English and French, Ms. von der Leyen studied at the London School of Economics and went on to become a gynecologist. She put her career on hold when her husband, also a doctor, won a scholarship to Stanford University in California.

She entered politics at the age of 42, winning a seat in the Lower Saxony legislature for the CDU in 2003 and then the federal parliament, the Bundestag, six years later. Ms. Merkel named her minister of family affairs and later minister of labour and social affairs.

Ms. von der Leyen has not shied away from taking on the more conservative wing of the party, pushing through improved paternity benefits and demanding that Ms. Merkel and the government support quotas for women on corporate boards. All of this has left her at odds with some of her CDU colleagues, but made her one of the most popular members of the Merkel government. However, at times she has come across as almost too perfect, flawlessly juggling a political career with the demands of raising seven children.

The defence job will be her biggest challenge yet, something Ms. Merkel noted when she announced the appointment this week. “It’s an exciting task and a challenging one, but I trust she will fulfill it very, very well,” she said of Ms. von der Leyen.

Ms. von der Leyen too has acknowledged the difficulties of the post, telling reporters that she had to “swallow hard” when Ms. Merkel approached her about the position. “It’s a huge challenge and a huge risk,” Ms. von der Leyen added. “But there are also huge chances.” Including, many believe, a chance to be the next chancellor.

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