European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen 'The Brexit Drama Is a Bitter Lesson for Populists'

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has no shortage of challenges facing her as she begins her tenure. She spoke with DER SPIEGEL about Donald Trump, climate change and the state of democracs inside the EU.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

Foto: Peter Rigaud/ DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. President, when you spoke about the European Union with DER SPIEGEL in a 2011 interview, you threw your support behind the concept of a "United States of Europe." Is that still your goal now that you have become president of the European Commission?

Von der Leyen: The "United States of Europe" is a project for my children. The path to that goal is a long one. All member states will have to be ready to contribute to deeper integration. In my generation, the priority is that of putting Europe in a strong position . I want to further develop the leadership role in areas like climate policy and digitalization, for example.

DER SPIEGEL: You have said that Europe must be more self-confident on the world stage and have referred to the EU executive under your leadership as the "geopolitical Commission." What would you like to achieve?

Von der Leyen: Europe is in a strong position as an economic power, and we are seen around the world as a defender of the rule of law. But there are also moments when Europe must take strong, rapid action. We have to better prepare ourselves for those moments. Six years ago, Mali faced collapse in the face of terror, and there was a political will in Europe to do something to help. But we didn't have the necessary structures. If the French hadn't forcefully intervened, Mali would have ceased playing its role as a stabilizing element in the Sahel region.

DER SPIEGEL: Where do you see Europe from a geopolitical perspective? In third place behind the U.S. and China?

Von der Leyen: I don't see it as a vertical arrangement. I am convinced that fundamentally, we are on the same side of the table as the Americans, even if we may disagree on some issues internally.

DER SPIEGEL: You plan on visiting U.S. President Donald Trump in the coming weeks. During your tenure as German defense minister, you had harsh words of criticism for Trump on occasion - for his comments about NATO, for example, but also for his closeness with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Will you continue using the same tone with him?

Von der Leyen: That was early on in his term and a lot has changed since then. His comment at the time that NATO was obsoletetriggered the necessary momentum  in Europe to modernize NATO and to get the ball rolling toward a European Defense Union. It became clear to the Eastern Europeans that we also had to develop military structures within the EU.

DER SPIEGEL: There are a variety of different ways to approach Trump. Your predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker  was able to gain a modicum of respect through his chummy style. What is your strategy?

Von der Leyen: I'm going to go into the meeting with a completely open mind. When it comes to initial meetings, a lot depends on intuition. I know the Americans well. I spent time in the U.S. during my schooling and later lived there for several years. Two of my children are American citizens. As such, I have a sense for the unique perspective of America and the Americans.

DER SPIEGEL: Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on the climate and has also chosen a confrontational approach to Europe on trade. Even beyond those two issues, there is a fair amount of friction between the U.S. and the EU. The U.S. wants to destroy the nuclear deal with Iran while Europe would like to save it. The U.S. has levied sanctions pertaining to the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. Which of these controversial issues will you discuss first?

Von der Leyen: My first priority will be that of describing just how good day-to-day relations between Americans and Europeans actually are. There are millions of friendships and links: in the private sphere, in the world of science and business, and culturally. We defend democracy together, something that isn't self-evident in the world of today. Many cities and regions in the U.S., along with the state of California, continue to operate within the framework of the Paris Agreement. Of course, there are controversial issues when it comes to economic and trade relations, but that's just part of the story.

DER SPIEGEL: The U.S. has threatened to slap punitive tariffs on German cars. Among your most ambitious goals is the European Green Deal, which includes a CO2 border tax designed to protect European companies. Isn't that just an emulation of Trump's use of trade policy as a weapon?

Von der Leyen: It is completely normal for Europe and the U.S. to defend their own interests. The reasoning behind the CO2 border tax is quite simple. To take one example, we in Europe are working towards CO2-neutral steel production in a few years. That will result in a clean product that will benefit the global climate and will likely be a bit more expensive. We cannot allow Europe to be flooded at the same time with cheap, perhaps state-subsidized steel from China that is produced in a less environmentally friendly manner. To create a level playing field, we either need a CO2 border tax or China can introduce an emissions trading scheme, which would be even better.

DER SPIEGEL: The U.S. ambassador in Germany, Richard Grenell, claims that with the sanctions introduced against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the U.S. has the support of 15 European countries, the European Parliament and the European Commission. Is he right?

Von der Leyen: It is true that the pipeline project also has a political dimension and that the European Commission with its funding is protecting the interests of eastern member states. On the other hand, though, the European Commission is vehemently opposed to sanctions against European companies that are legal participants in projects.

DER SPIEGEL: Another conflict with the U.S. centers around the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. Washington is demanding that EU countries not rely on the company when it comes to expanding the 5G network. You are planning to submit proposals on the issue soon. What do they look like?

Von der Leyen: Together with all member states, we have collected ideas with the goal of arriving at a common European position. The 5G and 6G infrastructures are critical technologies for the secure flow of data in Europe, for our economy, for public administration and for the private sector. We aren't focused on a single company, rather we as the EU want to develop fundamental standards. One of these standards has to be that the companies that provide us with these highly sensitive technologies are independent and cannot be coerced by their governments to provide data.

DER SPIEGEL: That would take Huawei out of the equation. There is a national intelligence law in China that would seem to include the possibility of exactly that sort of coercion.

Von der Leyen: We have to speak in depth about this issue. If there is a risk that data from citizens or companies could be accessed as a result of this law, then we cannot accept it.

DER SPIEGEL: You are demanding that Europe play a more self-confident role on the world stage. Yet the EU is in the process of losing a strong partner. Britain isn't just one of the largest economies in the EU but also one of two permanent members of the UN Security Council from Europe and one of two nuclear powers in Europe. How severely does Brexit weaken EU foreign and security policy?

Von der Leyen: The consequences of Brexit will actually be less severe when it comes to foreign and security policy. In contrast to other areas, the British were extremely reserved when it came to joint security policy and blocked some advances within the EU. That is why the European Defense Union could only really get going after the Brexit referendum. Both sides, though, are now eager to establish close cooperation.

DER SPIEGEL: The British government would like to secure a comprehensive deal on future relations by the end of 2020. Is that realistic?

Von der Leyen: It is a major concern of mine because time is extremely short for the vast number of questions that have to be negotiated. It's not just about trade policy, but also about security issues and fishing rights, to name just a couple of examples. That is why we want to initially focus on issues where the lack of a deal could create the largest problems due to the absence of international rules that would apply in the case of a hard Brexit.

DER SPIEGEL: The Brexiteers have promised that the United Kingdom will be better off without the EU. If Brexit is, indeed, successful, it could become something that populists from other countries in Europe will seek to emulate.

Von der Leyen: It's not the countless promises that matter, but reality. The Brexit drama has already become a bitter lesson for all those populists who have fantasized about leaving the EU. One after the other, they have silently buried their erstwhile strident demands for "Grexit," "Dexit" or "Frexit." Over the last five years, the international situation has shown that it isn't helpful for any country to stand completely on its own. The EU must now forge ahead. Brexit has cost a lot of political capital. Just think of the many nights in the European Council during which Brexit was discussed instead of important issues like the climate, migration or the further integration of the internal market.

DER SPIEGEL: Your own project, one intended to demonstrate Europe's renewed strength, is a climate package known as the Green Deal. How do you intend to garner the support of all 27 member states?

Von der Leyen: We are facing a huge task, but there is also new momentum. On the day after I presented my Green Deal, the EU heads of state and government brought their months of discussions to an end and agreed to the goal of making the EU climate neutral by 2050.

DER SPIEGEL: Poland insisted on an exception.

Von der Leyen: Poland may need more time, but it didn't question the goal of climate neutrality itself. A clear majority of the European population wants policymakers to do something to address global warming.

DER SPIEGEL: But what if people don't want to change their lifestyles? You are, of course, familiar with the reports that Germans are flying more than ever before. The number of SUV registrations is also climbing by the year.

Von der Leyen: We won't solve the problems by making flying impossible or banning driving. Our path is that of investing in new, clean energies. The aeronautics industry is conducting intensive research into the possibility of using hydrogen as a power source. I've already mentioned CO2-neutral steel production. I would like to see Europe exporting such products and technologies to the wider world and not a situation in which other powers one day force us to take action or become innovation drivers themselves.

DER SPIEGEL: A liter of gasoline costs around 1.40 euros at German gas stations. In France, the yellow vest protests were triggered by gas prices of 1.80 euros per liter. Where are the limits of what can be demanded from citizens when it comes to climate protection?

Von der Leyen: It is clear that the costs for climate protection can't simply be passed on one-to-one. Social equality is one of the key elements of the European Green Deal and must go hand-in-hand with investments in a clean future. When we invest in building improvements, then heating costs sink for tenants, even if energy will cost more in the future. For the large coal-mining regions, we are planning a multi-billion-euro fund to help companies and people make the adjustment.

DER SPIEGEL: Listening to you, one could be forgiven for assuming that you are from the Green Party. But you're actually a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union.

Von der Leyen: First and foremost, I am a European. But I still, of course, stand for the politics that I practiced in the past. When the population has advanced further than the parties, then it is time to rethink one's own concepts. That was the case with family policy several years ago and the same process is now taking place with climate policy.

DER SPIEGEL: There are issues such as migration on which the EU is in complete disagreement. Heads of government like Viktor Orbán of Hungary are quite happy to benefit from the EU financially but are otherwise opposed to almost everything for which Europe stands. Your political role model Wolfgang Schäuble once spoke of a two-speed Europe. Do all countries really have to participate in everything together? Or would it perhaps make sense to disengage from someone like Orbán and give up the principle of unanimity?

Von der Leyen: I don't think that is a good idea. The European Union is the most diverse and livable place on the planet because it has consistently been able to translate diverse interests and cultural currents into a shared movement. We shouldn't be so merciless with ourselves. The EU has grown in the last several years, and I don't mean just economically. Take a look at the General Data Protection Regulation, for example. By adopting it, we established a new standard for the entire world in support of a form of digitalization that starts with individuals and seeks to respect the rights of people. That is the correct path: debate with each-other, but stay together. It's not always easy, but Europe arrives at a fair settlement, while in the U.S. things are frequently imbalanced in favor of the market or, in China, the state.

DER SPIEGEL: But when it comes to existential questions, that path doesn't lead the EU to solutions. Hungary and other Eastern European countries simply reject the notion that they should accept a larger number of migrants should the need arise.

Von der Leyen: There has been no movement on the issue lately, but migration will be something that Europe will have to face for decades to come. We won't solve the problem by forcibly compelling certain EU member states to act. I have spoken with many heads of state and government in recent months and my impression is that all of them are eager to leave behind this period of paralysis. I intend to present a comprehensive migration package this spring. The focus will be on reforming the Dublin Regulation and on organizing asylum proceedings at the EU level. The Dublin system, according to which the country where an asylum seeker first arrives is solely responsible for asylum proceedings and accommodation, is simply unfair for countries like Italy, Spain or Greece that are particularly exposed.

DER SPIEGEL: The images from Greece, the overflowing refugee camps: It all combines to paint a shameful picture of Europe. The people can't really wait until you and the EU member states come up with a universal concept.

Von der Leyen: The Commission is in touch with the Greek government. Our priority is rapid assistance and it will be provided.

DER SPIEGEL: What do you think of the proposal from Robert Habeck, the co-head of the German Green Party, that Germany should focus on accepting children from the Greek camps?

Von der Leyen: As president of the European Commission, I cannot interfere in German national politics. It is important to me that Europe achieves a sustainable solution for protecting our borders and for a humane migration policy. That has to be Europe's calling card.

DER SPIEGEL: In Brussels, many see you as an emissary of Merkel's, but in Berlin, there is a feeling that you are closely aligned with French President Emmanuel Macron , who essentially opened the door to your appointment. Are you a Macron ally?

Von der Leyen: The great thing about the last several weeks is that I was able to put together my own majority in European Parliament. In July, I was elected with a razor-thin majority of just nine votes. After that, I started to speak frequently and directly with the representatives, for many hours at a time. And I gave no interviews at all.

DER SPIEGEL: It was almost like you had disappeared.

Von der Leyen: But this focus on internal work and on the Parliament was worth it. We used the time to assemble the current Commission and to refine our program, with the result that I now, after four months, enjoy a broad majority for my team. In parallel, I worked on securing the confidence of the heads of state and government. Otherwise, they would never have united behind the target of climate neutrality.

DER SPIEGEL: If we may, your program reads as though Macron wrote it: climate protection, European minimum wage, a "European unemployment benefits reinsurance scheme."

Von der Leyen: Slow down a bit. Climate protection is supported by 26 additional EU countries. And come on, I was responsible for introducing the first minimum wage in Germany, in the caregiving sector. The unemployment reinsurance plan, meanwhile, is essentially no different than the program we used in Germany to get through the hard times following the 2008 financial crisis. As labor minister at the time, I found the instrument to be quite useful.

DER SPIEGEL: The EU can only demonstrate strength externally if it is unified internally. But the contrary is currently the case, even when it comes to fundamental values such as the freedom of the press and of research. Poland and Hungary are veering toward a more autocratic model. For how long do you intend to stand by and watch?

Von der Leyen: We're certainly not standing by and watching. And in the cases of Poland and Hungary, our message is extremely clear. One of the foundations of our European Union is the rule of law and we are using the processes that we have available to us in situations when things are going in the wrong direction. Ultimately, the European Court of Justice will issue a verdict. What I really value in our member states is that they accept it - sometimes only begrudgingly and with fists balled in their pockets - but they accept it when the rule of law speaks. That, too, is a reason to be proud of Europe.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. President, we thank you for this interview.

This interview was originally published in the Dec. 28, 2019 issue of DER SPIEGEL.