BRUSSELS (AP) — For Ursula von der Leyen, becoming European Commission president and perhaps the most important official in the European Union felt like coming home.
After she was confirmed by the European Parliament in a cliffhanger ballot that saw her scrape through with nine votes beyond a necessary absolute majority of 374, the sigh of relief was there for all to see.
“I always wanted to come back to my roots,” she said, geographically because she was born in Brussels, and politically since she came from a pro-European family where her father already held a high-level EU position.
“I come from a family that has a European history,” she said Tuesday.
Still, little more than two weeks ago, her name was a near-total surprise when EU leaders proposed her to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker.
She is a strong supporter of closer European cooperation who has been Germany’s defense minister since 2013 and a fixture in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet over the longtime leader’s nearly 14 years in power.
Von der Leyen, 60, spent her early years in the Belgian capital and speaks fluent English and French, having studied at the London School of Economics in the 1970s. She also lived in Stanford, California, from 1992 to 1996, where two of her seven children were born.
She was long viewed as a potential successor to Merkel, but has had a tough tenure at the head of the notoriously difficult defense ministry and had long since faded out of contention by the time Merkel stepped down last year as leader of her center-right Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, party.
Still, von der Leyen, a medical doctor, played a significant role in modernizing the image of her party during the Merkel years. As minister for families in Merkel’s first Cabinet from 2005 to 2009, she introduced benefits encouraging fathers to look after their young children.
Von der Leyen then served as labor minister until 2013, when she became Germany’s first female defense minister.
Pushing for gender equality will mark her next five years too, she said. She only got the job, she said, “thanks to all the men and women who have broken down barriers and defied convention.”
Shortly after Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016, she said as defense minister that Brexit offered the bloc an opportunity to press ahead with greater military cooperation.
“Britain consistently blocked everything that had Europe written on it,” von der Leyen said. She argued that closer military ties between member states could help ease the frustration many voters feel about the EU’s inability to tackle major issues.
Her views on Europe are anathema to the spirit of Brexit sweeping the United Kingdom.
In an interview with news magazine Der Spiegel in 2011, as the eurozone debt crisis rumbled, von der Leyen declared a loftier goal for Europe.
“My aim is the United States of Europe — on the model of federal states such as Switzerland, Germany or the U.S.” She said that Europe could use its “size advantage” on financial, taxation and economic questions.
Her views, if anything, are even stronger now.
Von der Leyen comes from a political family and is the daughter of a former governor of her home state of Lower Saxony, Ernst Albrecht, who before that was a senior European civil servant. She has been a deputy leader of Merkel’s CDU since 2010. Despite being mentioned over the years as a potential successor to Merkel, she herself publicly dismissed such talk.
“In every generation, there is one chancellor,” she said in 2013. “In my generation, that is Angela Merkel.”
In her generation, von der Leyen is now the first female European Commission president.
Geir Moulson reported from Berlin.