Merkel Succession Beckons After Von der Leyen’s Defense Posting

With less than 72 hours to go before Germany’s next cabinet was unveiled, Ursula von der Leyen was holding out for a higher-profile job.

Fresh from losing the Labor Ministry in a bargain between Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Social Democratic Party, the trained physician defied Merkel and refused to take over the Health Ministry, according to a person with direct knowledge who asked not to be identified because the talks were private. Merkel gave in and agreed to make her Germany’s first woman defense minister in the government presented on Dec. 16.

With her tenacity, von der Leyen, 55, strengthened her reputation as top contender to succeed Merkel. As peacetime commander-in-chief and head of a department that blunted her predecessor’s claim to the Chancellery, the politician’s daughter and mother of seven is on a make-or-break assignment in Merkel’s third term.

“She’s the most ambitious and the toughest member of Merkel’s cabinet,” Michael Spreng, a former campaign manager and Berlin-based political consultant, said in an interview. “There’s no one waiting in the wings besides von der Leyen.” This is her “aptitude test for the chancellor’s job,” he said.

Von der Leyen intruded on Merkel’s turf with policy proposals on the euro-area debt crisis and clashed with the chancellor on gender quotas, making enemies in the Christian Democratic Union party they both belong to.

Drone Project

Now she’s in charge of a troubled drone project, Germany’s shift from the draft to a volunteer army begun in 2010 and almost 190,000 soldiers, including 3,000 in Afghanistan. Germany’s post-World War II constitution puts her in command unless parliament votes to declare a “defense emergency” that makes the chancellor commander-in-chief.

Von der Leyen says she wants to make the armed forces a more family-friendly place to work, telling lawmakers on Jan. 16 that the Bundeswehr is “a globally active corporation” and must become “Germany’s most attractive employer.”

While popular with soldiers and the public, the approach “is really just a footnote in the big picture,” said Jan Techau, the director of the Carnegie Endowment in Brussels.

“In the wider perspective, if you look at European and global security issues, this is small fight to pick,” he said by phone. “Germany’s real problems with the military lie elsewhere,” including “doing more with less money” and seeking “a more active German role in NATO and the EU.”

Euro Hawk

Von der Leyen’s challenges include deciding whether to pursue part of the failed Euro Hawk drone project, a cooperation between European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp., and fixing faults in the Puma armored fighting vehicle, built by a joint venture of Munich-based Krauss-Maffei Wegmann GmbH and Rheinmetall AG, based in Dusseldorf. The Defense Ministry in October cited nine deficiencies holding up delivery of the 350 Puma tanks.

Von der Leyen, who declined a request for an interview, can use her fluent English and French as she raises her international profile after two four-year stints heading the family and labor ministries.

On Jan. 9, the morning after presiding over a torch-lit ceremony for her predecessor in Berlin, she traveled to Hanover to mingle with 170 members of an armored division headed to Afghanistan, Kosovo or Mali.

After outlining her plan to boost child care for soldiers, von der Leyen rose the most in a monthly poll of 10 leading politicians’ approval ratings and 70 percent of respondents said the army’s work-life balance is important. The Jan. 14-16 FG Wahlen poll of 1,237 people didn’t cite a margin of error.

“Von der Leyen’s start has been very good and she really found the right tone,’ Techau said.

Opposite Sides

Merkel, 59, and von der Leyen rose to power from opposite sides of Germany’s former east-west divide.

Von der Leyen grew up in Brussels and attended the London School of Economics, studied medicine and worked as a gynecologist in her hometown of Hanover. Her father, Ernst Albrecht, was state premier of Lower Saxony when Merkel left her East German physics lab and entered politics after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

While then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl promoted Merkel to his cabinet after East and West Germany reunited in 1990, von der Leyen won a seat in her home-state legislature only in 2003 after her children were born. Less than three years later, Merkel became chancellor and made her families minister.

California Life

She lived in California between 1992 and 1996 while her husband, a professor of medicine, did research and taught at Stanford University. They, the children and Albrecht, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, live together on a farm near Hanover.

‘‘Those who know Ursula von der Leyen know that she’s very strong-willed,” David McAllister, the Christian Democratic former premier of Lower Saxony, said in an interview. “She’s very clever about getting things done politically and can be extremely persistent.”

Merkel slapped down von der Leyen, then labor minister, in 2011 for demanding Greece offer collateral for emergency loans to avoid possible default. In 2013, she threatened to back an opposition plan for female quotas on corporate supervisory boards, angering fellow CDU lawmakers.

Though a face-saving compromise was found, “she blackmailed the chancellor and the entire parliamentary caucus,” Spreng said. Christean Wagner, a CDU leader in Hesse state, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper that von der Leyen’s maneuver was damaging for Merkel and the party.

Surprise Announcement

Even so, von der Leyen is one of only three ministers with Merkel since she became chancellor in 2005. The others are Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, who was forced to give up the defense post to make way for von der Leyen, the surprise announcement of the cabinet list.

“I would have liked to stay interior minister three years ago, but the chancellor decided otherwise, just as she did now,” de Maiziere, a Merkel confidant and son of a German general, said in his farewell speech on Jan. 8.

Merkel, who won re-election in the Sept. 22 federal ballot, has said she intends to serve out her four-year term. She hasn’t indicated if she’ll run for a fourth term in 2017.

She’s meanwhile on to her fourth defense minister in eight years, a rate of ministerial churn that shows von der Leyen’s ministry is “full of booby traps,” said Techau.

“The big risk is that some kind of scandal can explode at any time,” Techau said. “Politically speaking, it’s the most dangerous ministry to hold in Berlin.”

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