Her rise to the presidency of the EU Commission was confirmation of the old maxim that you only ascend the heights of Brussels politics after first proving your incompetence at home – and the six years Ursula von der Leyen served as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s defence minister were widely considered a disaster.
But yesterday even the most resolute supporters of the European project were questioning whether Mrs von der Leyen could continue as president, with responsibility for the ‘vindictive’ attempt to stop vaccines reaching the UK falling squarely on her shoulders.
Bild, the raucous but influential German tabloid, was especially withering, noting she ‘was a failure as defence minister’ and now bore the blame for the vaccine fiasco by insisting she ‘took over everything in Brussels’.
As Mrs von der Leyen, 62, fights to salvage her position this week, she will at least be able to reflect on past times in her life when she has found herself under siege
Brussels-based diplomats were equally damning, aghast that she had tried to introduce a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to stop vaccine imports without informing the Taoiseach, Micheal Martin.
‘She needs to go. Now,’ said one. ‘She told f****** no one.’
Even EU cheerleader Tony Blair condemned the Commission’s attempt to control vaccine movements, saying that it was ‘unacceptable’.
As Mrs von der Leyen, 62, fights to salvage her position this week, she will at least be able to reflect on past times in her life when she has found herself under siege.
During her years as defence minister barely a fifth of Germany’s 68 combat helicopters, and fewer than one third of its 136 Eurofighter jets were airworthy.
Highly trained pilots were leaving in droves, and the army was so under-equipped that soldiers took part in training exercises with broom sticks instead of guns.
Mrs Merkel allowed her to become president of the Commission in 2019 as part of a closed-door carve-up of the top jobs between powerful EU member states – although she barely concealed her belief that Mrs von der Leyen was a lightweight.
Incompetent she may be, but the Commission president has a knack for brushing off problems that might sink politicians with less self-confidence.
Mrs von der Leyen is the antithesis of the methodical, meticulous Mrs Merkel, who favours ill-fitting trouser suits of a style that suggests they were bought in her native East Germany before the Wall came down
She even survived allegations that she had plagiarised large parts of her medical dissertation in 1990.
Her medical school took the charges very seriously, finally ruling five years ago that although some of the material had been copied, her offence fell short of deliberate plagiarism.
Mrs von der Leyen is the antithesis of the methodical, meticulous Mrs Merkel, who favours ill-fitting trouser suits of a style that suggests they were bought in her native East Germany before the Wall came down.
In contrast, the Commission president is lithe and stylishly dressed, with a ready smile and hair immaculately swept back, ever so slightly reminiscent of Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore in the James Bond film Goldfinger. She is also an accomplished horsewoman.
Astonishingly, over the years, she has trained as a doctor, spent four years in the US, and forged a long ministerial career in Germany while raising seven children, one of whom went to Oxford.
One of the oddities of Mrs von der Leyen’s attempt to bully the British government and the drug companies over Covid vaccines is that she professes to be an Anglophile.
When she and Boris Johnson got together over Zoom to celebrate the striking of a trade deal on Christmas Eve, she quoted The Beatles, T S Eliot, and William Shakespeare.
‘Parting is such sweet sorrow,’ she told Mr Johnson, who replied stiffly that Britain remained a close ally and ‘indeed, never let it be forgotten, your number one market’.
Her father, Ernst Albrecht, was one of the first people to serve as a Brussels bureaucrat when the European Commission was created in 1958, so she spent the first 13 years of her life in Brussels.
Descended from cotton dealers and American plantation owners, the family were sufficiently wealthy and prominent to fear the attentions of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang, a major concern in Germany in the late-1970s.
So rather than be surrounded by bodyguards, as a young woman she came to London, where she lived under an assumed name and studied at the London School of Economics.
‘I lived much more than I studied,’ she recalled. ‘No details, please. Only this: In 1978 I immersed myself for one year in this seething, international, colourful city. For me, coming from the rather monotonous, white Germany, that was fascinating.’
She has been married since 1986 to a doctor, Heiko, scion of the noble von der Leyen family who built their fortune as silk merchants.
Her father, Ernst Albrecht, was one of the first people to serve as a Brussels bureaucrat when the European Commission was created in 1958, so she spent the first 13 years of her life in Brussels. Ursula is seen left while her father is seen centre, and her mother right
The family live on a farm near Hanover, where they keep horses, one of which is named Cockney.
During the week, when she is required to be in Brussels, home is a 269sq ft ‘living space’ adjoining her office on the 13th floor of the Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters.
The likelihood is that Mrs von der Leyen will survive and keep her lodgings. There is no culture of resignation to take responsibility in Brussels, even for missteps like hers.
But this is a woman who likes to begin her speeches by declaring she ‘was born in Brussels as a European’. And to have brought the EU into global ridicule will be a bitter pill for her to swallow.