Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said of the nominations: "That's a very important statement that Europe leads on gender equality."

By Ian Horswill


Posted on July 3, 2019

Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde will become the first women to hold the top roles in the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB).

Ursula von der Leyen’s name may not be familiar to you. Sixty-year-old von der Leyen has been the German Defence Minister since 2013, the first woman in that role.

Christine Lagarde is the head of the International Monetary Fund, the first woman to hold that position. The 63-year-old Lagarde will now be the first woman to head the European Central Bank.

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Ursula von der Leyan is nominated to be the first female leader of the European Commission.
Ursula von der Leyen is nominated to be the first female leader of the European Commission. Photo: WikiCommons

Born and raised in Brussels, Belgium, where she grew up learning German and French, von der Leyen’s family moved to Germany when she was 13. She studied economics at the University of Göttingen and the University of Münster from 1977 to 1980, when she switched to studying medicine at Hanover Medical School. She graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in 1991 and a Master of Public Health from the medical school in 2001.

She was a physician and became active in politics in 1999. In 2003, she became an ally of Angela Merkel, when in Opposition, and has held the roles of Minister of Family Affairs and Youth, Minister of Labour and Social Affairs and Minister of Defence since 2013 in Merkel’s governments.

Her once-impeccable reputation has taken a battering managing Germany’s military. She has come under intense criticism and her nomination for the European Commission’s top job, replacing Jean-Claude Juncker, is a surprise and revealed as a compromise.

“Von der Leyen is our weakest minister. That’s apparently enough to become Commission president,” former European Parliament President Martin Schulz wrote in a tweet.

“Ursula von der Leyen is unacceptable as head of the EU Commission for social democrats,” said Iratxe García, the new leader of the Socialists and Democrats in the Parliament.

“We cannot simply throw the top candidate principle overboard because the results of the election do not suit some heads of government.”

Bas Eickhout of the Greens said the Council had made a “very disappointing deal” to nominate von der Leyen, calling it “old Europe at its worst”.

“A backroom deal with candidates emerging to please the national leaders from Germany, France and Spain — this is not the change that was promised to European voters. EP should not follow,” he tweeted.

Greens defence expert Omid Nouripour said about the many recent military failings making headlines in Germany: “The situation with respect to the equipment of the German armed forces is not a necessary qualification for the top EU executive job,” DW reported.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the nominations were “the fruit of a deep Franco-German entente”.

“Von der Leyen is a very good candidate and a very good choice to head the European Commission,” he told reporters, adding that Christine Lagarde’s “capacities and competencies… totally qualified her” for the ECB.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said: “That’s a very important statement that Europe leads on gender equality.”

“It might have taken three days, but it’s a good outcome overall,” he said, alluding to the marathon-long private talks between political leaders.

Lagarde was born in Paris, France. Her father died when she was aged 17 and her mother raised four children on her own. She graduated from Paris West University Nanterre La Défense, where she obtained master’s degrees in English, Labor Law, and Social law. She also holds a master’s degree from the Institut d’études politiques in Aix-en-Provence.

A vegetarian, Lagarde is divorced with two sons. She was employed by Chicago-based international law firm Baker & McKenzie in 1981. She joined the Executive Committee in 1995 and was elected the company’s first female chairman in October 1999. In 2004, Lagarde became President of the Global Strategic Committee and in 2005 entered the French parliament. Lagarde was Trade Minister from 2005 to 2007.

In May 2007, she was appointed Agriculture Minister and a month later became part of then French President François Fillon’s cabinet in the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Finance and Employment. Lagarde was the first woman to be put in charge of economic policy in France.

In May 2011, Lagarde announced her candidacy to be head of the IMF to replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who resigned. On 28 June 2011, the IMF board elected Lagarde as its next Managing Director and Chairman for a five-year term, the first woman to hold the post.

Christine Lagarde has been nominated to be first female head of the European Central Bank. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Christine Legarde has been nominated to be first female head of the European Central Bank. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

She refused to run for the positions of President of the European Commission or President of the European Central Bank when questioned at the IMF. However, Lagarde is the next President of the European Central Bank, to succeed Mario Draghi.

Lagarde – known as the “rock star” of international finance, reported BBC News – said the new role was “an honour”.

Mark Sobel, a former US Treasury official and chairman of the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum, said Lagarde has experience in monetary policy even though she is not an economist.

“She’s been involved in all the monetary debate and it’s not like they don’t discuss monetary policy at the fund,” he said.