BRUSSELS (CN) – The first woman to serve as president of the European Commission stepped into her role on Sunday, vowing to combat the worsening climate crisis, promote equality and improve government efficiency.
The commission of former German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen was approved by the European Parliament on Wednesday, receiving 461 votes in favor, 57 against and 89 abstentions.
The European Commission functions as the European Union’s cabinet, with von der Leyen as the chief executive. She was narrowly elected to a five-year term by the European Parliament, the European Union’s legislative body, in July.
Climate change, she said in her first speech before parliament as president, was an “existential challenge” to Europe but that the 28-member political and economic union “had the duty to act and the power to lead.”
The major focus of her tenure, she said, would be a Green New Deal.
“I want Europe to strive for more by being the first climate-neutral continent,” she wrote in her guidelines for the next European Commission.
Her election in July was controversial, as members of parliament ignored the so-called spitzenkandidat (German for lead candidate) system, whereby political parties would nominate a leader and the party with the most seats in parliament would have their leader selected as president.
She was voted in by a narrow margin. 383 members of parliament voted in favor, 327 against, and 22 abstained.
Her first task was to select her commission, the cabinet-like body with a member from each EU member state. Her aim was for the commission to be gender-balanced and she also reshuffled responsibilities among the commissioners, in an effort to improve efficiency.
“I want this European Commission to be a flexible, modern, agile Commission,” she said in a press conference after her election.
Before even taking office, she’s already experienced some pushback. Three of her commissioner picks were rejected by parliament for conflicts of interest. Replacing them delayed her start by a month.
In the end, 12 of the 27 commissioners are women.
Von der Leyen is actually returning to her place of birth in her new role. She was born Ursula Gertrud Albrecht in Brussels, Belgium in 1958 where her father served in the European Economic Community, a precursor to the European Union.
She has an American connection. Her father’s mother was Mary Ladson Robertson, who came from a plantation owning family in Charleston, South Carolina.
When von der Leyen was 13, her family returned to Germany when her father accepted a job as CEO of a food company. Eventually, she went on to study economics at the University of Göttingen.
In 1978, she was forced to flee university for London. Her family received reports that the Red Army Faction, a far-left militant organization, was planning to kidnap her for ransom, as her father had become a prominent politician in Germany.
She spent a year in hiding in London, under the protection of Scotland Yard. She continued studying at the London School of Economics under an assumed name before returning to Germany where she shifted her educational focus to medicine.
She continued to have security protection for years following her return. She graduated from Hanover Medical School in 1987 and earned her doctorate in 1991.
It was later discovered that her doctoral thesis contained multiple instances of plagiarism. Hanover Medical School acknowledged that the thesis was plagiarized, but did not revoke her degree.
“Parts of my work at that time do not meet the standards that I set for myself,” she said in a statement, following the university’s decision.
In 1986, she married fellow physician Heiko von der Leyen. Together, they have seven children. She interrupted her career to move with her husband to California in 1992 while he was on the faculty of Stanford University.
When the family returned to Germany, von der Leyen became involved in local politics. She joined the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and entered local politics in 2001.
She had a fast upward trajectory. In 2005, she was appointed Federal Minister of Family Affairs and Youth. In 2009, von der Leyen was elected to the Bundestag, the German Parliament. In 2013, she was appointed by Angela Merkel as Germany’s first female defense minister. She would go on to be the longest-serving minister in Merkel’s cabinet.
As a CDU member, von der Leyen had a reputation for being the social conscience of the party and for pushing it to a more moderate position on social issues. She advocated for increasing the number of daycares in Germany, supported a national minimum wage and was in favor of same-sex marriage. In 2013, she went against the CDU’s official line and pushed for a quota of women in boardrooms.
Von der Leyen is not without her detractors.
“Von der Leyen is our weakest minister. That’s apparently enough to become Commission president,” former European Parliament President Martin Schulz tweeted, following her election as that body’s president.
Many consider her tenure as defense minister wholly unsuccessful. “The troops are far from being fully equipped,” is what a Bundestag report found earlier this year.
While German troops were facing shortages, von der Leyen oversaw 125 million euros of cost overruns on the refurbishment of the Gorch Fock, a German naval ship. There were also allegations of her misusing and overpaying consultants during her time at the ministry.
Her other priorities as president include cracking down on sweetheart tax deals with multinational companies, reining in the power of tech giants and revisiting the Dublin Regulation, an EU law which, among other things, requires refugees to seek asylum in the first EU country they arrive in.
Her cabinet reshuffle wasn’t her only move to improve efficiency. She plans to live in a 270-square-foot room next to her office in Brussels. The move will save money on security and save her time in the city’s notoriously bad traffic.