Ursula von der Leyen as President of the European Commission: an opportunity for Defense Europe?

Appointed to replace Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker at the head of the Commission, the German Federal Minister of Defense is a convinced European. Strong woman[efn_note]Anja MAIER, “Ursula von der Leyen, a fighter at the head of the European Union” in The daily newspaper, July 3, 2019[/efn_note], she did not hesitate to position herself in favor of European defense – sometimes against the grain of her peers in government – ​​in particular by involving Germany more in military industrial cooperation, like the FCAS and the MGCS. In a context where Germany seems to be sending contrary signals, this event could be emblematic of a new impetus given to Defense Europe. 

Francophone and convinced Europhile, Ursula von der Leyen defends a federalist vision of Europe and her designation constitutes a strong signal sent abroad: she ardently defended the principle of strategic autonomy of the European Union despite support displayed for the Atlantic Alliance[efn_note]Ursula VON DER LEYEN, “The World Still Needs NATO” inThe New York Times, January 18, 2019[/efn_note]. In his eyes, the idea of ​​a more autonomous European defense is not antithetical to NATO, thus pleading for more cooperation on defense issues between Western countries. By neutralizing this false debate, it only highlights an element that saves NATO, not because of the desire to overvalue a weakened transatlantic link but to save the European cause. Strengthening NATO means strengthening our own collective security while gradually consolidating the coveted ideal of European strategic autonomy. If the NATO framework does not exist, there is nothing in Europe: no standardization, no joint operations, no staffs. 

  Although coming from a government maintaining the German tradition of restraint in matters of defense, she is a supporter of a firmer line in matters of foreign policy for Germany and in this regard, she has been able to demonstrate her independence from the German politics and the overly cautious ideas that dominate it. She was at the origin of sending weapons to the Kurdish and Iraqi armed forces[efn_note]Derek CHOLLET, “Meet Europe's Rising Defense Stars” in Defenseone.com, March 25, 2015[/efn_note], breaking the German tradition of not exporting military equipment to a conflict zone. 

   Moreover, in her capacity as German Federal Minister of Defense, she quickly committed herself to controlling the budget for military equipment, but Germany needs strong guarantees in financial matters before investing a little more deeply into industrial cooperation. Thus, she openly criticized Airbusfor repeated failures to control suppliers, costs and delivery times[efn_note] “Germany seeks further 12.7 mln euros from Airbus for A400M delays” in Reuters, August 2, 2016[/efn_note]. In the “dimensioning” programs that are the FCAS and the MGCS, there is an imperative need not to reproduce the dysfunctions of the previous programs that were those of theEuro Fighter Typhoon and A400M.In this regard, Ursula von der Leyen could well embody this guarantee and thus build a bridge between French aspirations in terms of European defense and German financial power. 

Luftwaffe A400M Defense News | Germany | Military alliances
LuftWaffe A400M. U. von der Leyen strongly criticized the management of the project

 Nevertheless, a certain tension remains palpable between French and Germans on industrial cooperation linked to the FCAS, export restrictions irritating Paris[efn_note]Laurent LAGNEAU, "For President Macron, Germany is showing 'demagoguery' on arms sales to Saudi Arabia » in Opex360.com, October 27, 2018[/efn_note]. However, during a European tour, Angela Merkel and von der Leyen made promises confirming an increase in Germany's commitments in terms of defense. But this speech was undermined by actions, namely export restriction and the significant dilapidation of the German forces who are forced to vampirize themselves to maintain their commitment to the European rapid intervention force[efn_note]Laurent LAGNEAU, “Currently, the German army cannot hold its place at the head of the force NATO Very Rapid Response » in Opex360.com, February 19, 2018[/efn_note]. 

  Having such a personality at the head of the Commission is undeniably a positive signal sent to supporters of a defense Europe. However, if its strength of conviction can prove to be a driving force in industrial cooperation, it can be perceived as risky in a context of rising populism and growing challenges to the supranationality of the European Union. It will be a question of finding a balance in the path towards deep military integration, while avoiding falling into excessive radical federalism, likely to further irritate the Eurosceptics and their electoral bases which continue to progress. Only the future will tell us whether Ursula von der Leyen's mandate will correspond – or not – to a phase of impetus and maturation of European defense. 

Axel Trinquier

Specialist in European Defense issues

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