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The lady on the coronary heart of Brexit talks


n the face of it, they might not be extra totally different – tousled, performatively chaotic Boris Johnson and the elegant European Fee President Ursula von der Leyen –  her hair regally coiffed into a mode of elaborate flicks and most root raise (assume Margaret Thatcher with a touch of the late Princess Diana’s glossiness).

However their life tales have extra similarities than are instantly obvious. The connection between von der Leyen, or VDL as her workers name her, and Johnson might decide our future after Brexit. So who’s she and the way does she get on with our Prime Minister? 

As the 2 blondes met in Brussels’s freezing European quarter this week for a dinner of future – pumpkin soup and scallops, steamed turbot and pavlova with coconut sorbet – Europe waited to see the result of their last-ditch talks. The stakes are excessive, particularly for Britain eyeing up a deal on commerce phrases to offset a chaotic begin to 2021 and restrict irksome delays on transporting items through the UK’s ports. 4 years after the Brexit vote and almost a 12 months after the departure of Brexited Britain from the EU, rather a lot comes all the way down to the interplay of the 2 blond(e) leaders. Very massive gaps stay between the UK and the EU, Quantity 10 has mentioned, and it’s unlikely that negotiations will likely be prolonged past Sunday.

However their life tales have extra similarities than are instantly obvious which accounts for a better ease of their dealings than the permafrost which descended on the Theresa Could-Merkel relationship or the perpetual sniping that Jean-Claude Juncker, von der Leyen’s predecessor dished out to Britain after the Go away victory.

Von der Leyen and Johnson and share the identical alma mater – the European Faculty in Brussels and each are the offspring of fathers who had been lively in pro-European politics, studying to talk French, the lingua franca of the Eurocracy. However whereas Johnson selected the course of disrupter to the continuities of UK membership of the EU as his path to energy, Von der Leyen is the final word Berlin insider, rigorously taking part in by the foundations of Merkel’s consensus -driven politics (that are engineered to make sure that the Chancellor herself has stayed on the helm for a record-breaking 15 years).

Deal, no deal or the very thinnest of skimmed offers, a Fee insider notes that von der Leyen and Johnson “rub alongside higher a private stage than any of their forebears, usually sharing a smile or a joke” – even when her official frustration with Britain because the “awkward cousins” of Europe is palpable. She is nicknamed the Hitcock blonde for her capability to maintain her cool below stress.

( AP )

Probably Johnson additionally reminds her of the much less managed period of her life – a interval escaping the confines of a strict, politically distinguished  Conservative household within the north of Germany to check on the LSE and embrace the punk tradition of the late 70s. At a time when the households of politicians had been focused by the terrorist Crimson Military Faction, she registered as Rose Ladson (her household adopted the brand new identify calling her Röschen, little rose) and her father organized for her to stay in Earl’s Court docket, with the additional safety of a landlord they trusted, Jacek Rostowski, later Polish finance minister. Rostowski additionally had a short interval within the Brexit wars as a candidate for the short-lived (and in the end imploded occasion) Change UK.  

The younger von der Leyen, he as soon as jogged my memory, was “bouncy, well mannered, sociable and often on her approach out to golf equipment”. She additionally had a behavior of leaving the entrance door open, which somewhat undermined the household obsession along with her security. She headed out to see The Buzzcocks, loved discos and remembers her time right here fondly, saying: “London was the epitome of modernity, freedom, the enjoyment of life making an attempt every thing – an internal freedom.”

At LSE she modified educational topics often. “Nobody thought she was a present to economics,” notes a fellow LSE pupil. Von der Leyen lastly switched to check medication, at Hannover medical college, specialising in gynaecology. She met her physician husband, Heiko, there. He’s now an entrepreneur in stem-cell expertise and dubbed “the second quietest husband in Germany” after Angela Merkel’s near-invisible different half Joachim Sauer.

The couple have seven kids and stay on a rambling farm close to Hannover (the place Ursula is happiest mooching with round horses and her pet goats on weekends).

Few doubt that she was in a position to rocket begin her personal profession initially by advantage of her father’s prominence in German Christian Democrat politics. However she was additionally shrewd sufficient to ally herself to Angela Merkel within the rocky early years when the Chancellor confronted hostile male ranks and snobbery for her roots within the east and wanted an ally who knew the social, in addition to the political levers of Germany’s advanced political machine.  

The 2, says one insider, are “politically shut mates” somewhat than “sisters evaluating hairdressers”. Von der Leyen has at all times been the “longer arm of Angela Merkel” observes one in every of her previous aides, who additionally provides: “However she has proven metal of her personal, You don’t survive within the cupboard tussles of sundry coalitions (the place jobs are apportioned between events) with out standing out or not less than displaying your price to the boss.”

( AFP/Getty Photographs )

I skilled that steely attraction  at first hand in a small posse of journalists, allowed behind a cordon to speak briefly with Merkel and von der Leyen within the Chancellor’s election TV debate in 2017. The connection between the 2 girls felt like a scene of monarch and handler you would possibly see in The Crown – with von der Leyen handing over wine for a photograph shoot to the Chancellor and deflecting the dialog when the themes between too awkward (aka newsworthy) for Merkel.

When von der Leyen interrupted to instruct us that was “sufficient”, we assembled journalists begged to vary – and located ourselves yanked backwards by safety groups to permit the Chancellor a retreat. It’s an illustration of why Merkel has come to treat von der Leyen as somebody who can learn her pursuits and do a number of the heavy imposing on her behalf. After the fracas calmed down, von der Leyen joked, “we simply felt it was time for our wine!”

Extra broadly although, her tenure as Defence Secretary left query marks over competence in a profession which has lurched from success to disasters. “The weakest of all our ministers,” objected an outraged ex- Cupboard colleague to her appointment in as EU Fee President in 2019.

She had a near-miss resignation subject when it emerged that she had copied swathes of her doctorate (she denied doing so deliberately, however the incident raised persistent questions on her rigour) and there was frequent criticism of a scarcity of grip on element as defence secretary, years wherein the German military was suffering from organisational and finances issues. Von der Leyen was blissful to flee the political barracks to Brussels.  

Von der Leyen can’t herself transfer the purple strains set by the EU (with the massive energy gamers of Angela Merkel and Emmanual Macron within the background). Merkel’s impassioned defence of the only market yesterday additionally confirmed that there’s very restricted scope for the type of give-and-take compromise the “realist” wings of the UK authorities and the EU hoped would possibly bear fruit.

Von der Leyen’s Twitter feed on Wednesday reported that she was  “trying ahead”  to assembly Johnson and “delighted” that the complications of final minute haggling over the Withdrawal Settlement and a reopening of points surrounding the Irish border have been resolved – one stumbling block to a deal eliminated not less than . She is aware of when to deploy niceness instead of irritation with Brexit Britain. It feels much less bruising than those that went earlier than. However after the late night time espresso and cognac, the purple strains dividing Boris and Brussels don’t look a lot softer.

Anne McElvoy is Senior Editor at The Economist

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