Ursula von der Leyen sat in the VIP carriage of a Ukrainian train, a slight figure clad in a collared shirt and light jumper. Rattling through dark, forested countryside an hour outside Kyiv, the European Commission president and her entourage were making their way back towards the EU border. The table had been cleared of beer cans and wine bottles left over from a meeting with journalists. None of the drinks had been touched by the 64-year-old von der Leyen. A server set her a place with napkins in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, before laying out a dinner of potato, cheese and wild herb pie. A faint smell of lignite drifted through the elaborate, golden interior.

Von der Leyen was returning to Brussels following a summit with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, during which she stepped up her push for Ukraine to be admitted into the EU. Such a move would be the most radical reshaping of the union since Brexit, so the visit was a carefully stage-managed show of support for Zelenskyy, attended by von der Leyen, European Council president Charles Michel and more than a dozen commissioners. The meetings were briefly interrupted when air-raid sirens echoed through the Ukrainian capital, forcing the commission president to shelter in a basement.

Von der Leyen’s advocacy of Ukrainian membership has set off alarm bells in many EU capitals. Although politicians in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere have signed up to the project, many are wary of overinflating hopes in Kyiv, while doing little to prepare the European public for the enormous cost of absorbing a war-wracked country. Von der Leyen has, by contrast, been uninhibited in extolling the merits of the Ukrainian case.

Sitting in the juddering carriage, occasionally steadying a platter of sliced fruit sliding around the table, she described the epiphany she had after the war broke out last February. She was in the city of Bucha, outside Kyiv. The violence against innocent people shocked her. “I have seen dead bodies in my life because of being a medical doctor,” she told me. “But this combination of seeing the magnitude of what Putin had unleashed and the brutality of the war triggered something for me . . . They are fighting for Ukraine, but also for the wider values that we all share. They are so close to us, this country and its people.

“If we fail to draw the line in the sand then of course you start to question everything,” she added, in lightly accented English. “In the mid- and long-term, geopolitically, Ukraine belongs to us.”

Von der Leyen’s presidency began in December 2019, on the eve of multiple crises. Europe’s most prominent national leader, Angela Merkel, was entering the twilight of her decade-and-a-half spell as German chancellor. In response, von der Leyen stretched the boundaries of her mandate, attempting to reshape the EU into a more assertive global actor, with herself at the helm. The result has been expansion of the bloc’s powers, including large-scale joint borrowing in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, an ambitious if contentious carbon-reduction agenda, the implementation of 10 sweeping sanctions packages on Russia and plans for the joint procurement of armaments. “People used to ask what Europe’s phone number is. Now we know,” says Philippe Lamberts, the co-head of the Greens in the European parliament. “She has given Europe a voice and a face.”

Von der Leyen’s assertive style has created tensions with EU leaders, some of whom worry about over-reach by an ambitious executive. Her highly centralised leadership has also dented morale in the commission itself, sidelining senior figures who might otherwise bear some of the load. With European elections next year, there are few obvious alternative contenders should she seek a second term. The question is whether a more muscular Europe will endure, or whether it will prove to be an artefact of the crisis years.

The glare of the television studio lights is warm. It is 1976 and Ursula, still a teenager, is standing centre stage, dressed in a sparkling top and long skirt with a modest foulard around her neck, surrounded by four of her siblings. Her mother is next to her and, on the other side, her brother is standing, arms crossed, looking profoundly uninterested. Her father and the show’s presenter are on an adjoining set, where they have been conversing about German politics, before turning to the “Albrecht family choir” for an a cappella folk tune. Throughout, Ursula stands upright, singing and smiling brightly. Later, when the family is called over for a chat, she appears to shoot her brother the slightest of frowns before returning her focus to the conversation.

Her composure was hardly surprising, given how accustomed the Albrecht family was to being in the public eye. Ursula was born in Brussels in 1958, the third daughter of Ernst Albrecht, who was to become one of Germany’s regional governors. At the time, her father was serving as a senior official in the newly established European Commission. The family moved back to Germany when she was 13 years old. Ursula, nicknamed Röschen, or little rose, grew up in a family known for its squeaky-clean, traditional image. The Albrecht children featured in newspapers and magazines, and lived outside Hanover in an Arcadian house with an ivy-clad front door. They played instruments, danced quadrilles, rode horses and prayed before dinner.

But, by the late-1970s, von der Leyen left Germany amid fears she might be kidnapped by Baader-Meinhof terrorists targeting her father. She attended the London School of Economics under the assumed name Rose Ladson, a reference to her charmed childhood. By her own account, she “lived much more than I studied” at this time, telling the newspaper Die Zeit of her fascination with London after spending her teens in “rather monotonous, white Germany”. Von der Leyen later switched to studying medicine, specialised in gynaecology and married Heiko von der Leyen, a scientist and scion of an aristocratic family, in 1986.

She entered regional politics by winning election to Lower Saxony’s parliament in 2003, as a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, and joined the cabinet of Christian Wulff, a successor to her father as the state’s minister-president. “Albrecht told Christian Wulff that he felt that of his children, von der Leyen was the best-suited to go into politics,” recalls Klaus Welle, a senior CDU figure who was until recently the European parliament’s secretary-general. “She developed from there, not via youth organisations or the party grassroots, given she came to politics relatively late.”

Although von der Leyen was always camera-ready, her political style could be hard-charging, earning her the sobriquets powerfrau and super-mutter in the press. She was blunt about her frustrations with German society, particularly the way that it treated working mothers. She joined Merkel’s first cabinet in 2005 as family minister, going on to increase the number of nursery places and institute allowances for fathers on paternity leave. In 2012, von der Leyen, by then herself a mother of seven, took on her own party by campaigning for a frauenquote that would force German companies to appoint more women to board seats. She became Merkel’s longest-serving minister and was constantly sent by the chancellor to defend government policies on television.

Von der Leyen’s critics chafed at her “too perfect” image, according to Daniel Goffart, who co-wrote an unauthorised 2015 biography of her. Whereas CDU politicians were expected to visit local fire brigades, beer gardens and golf clubs, brushing shoulders with loyalists, von der Leyen was a keen horse rider who competed in dressage. “Ordinary people didn’t ever feel they could ever be like her,” Goffart says. And despite her close relationship with Merkel, von der Leyen tacked to the left in the otherwise conservative party, so her ties within the CDU were relatively weak.

Her undoing came during her stint in the defence ministry, a notorious graveyard in German politics. After she took over in 2013, von der Leyen set out plans for reforming the country’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, including broadening its global footprint and improving procurement. But the posting made for an uneasy fit. A widely lampooned photograph showed her posing next to troops who were lying in a camouflage tent; the minister was dressed as if she had just left the country club. “She had zero chemistry with the troops,” says one defence official. “She was always seen as very aloof.”

Von der Leyen’s final months in the job were overshadowed by the so-called consultants’ affair, after Germany’s Federal Audit Office criticised the way the ministry awarded big-ticket contracts to external consultants. Furious MPs set up a parliamentary inquiry. Von der Leyen insisted she had done nothing wrong, eventually admitting “irregularities” in the awarding of contracts, but that the crucial decisions were taken “way below my level”. By early 2019, Merkel had long written off her protégée’s chances of succeeding her as chancellor, and von der Leyen’s career looked like it was in terminal decline.

Von der Leyen’s rocky stint as defence minister gave her enough international exposure to be pushed forward as a surprise compromise candidate for commission president. During a marathon summit of EU leaders in the summer of 2019, a backroom deal, supported by French president Emmanuel Macron sealed her candidacy. When von der Leyen arrived in Brussels, some disgruntled European lawmakers felt she had been parachuted into high office without democratic legitimacy. She only narrowly won her confirmation vote in the parliament.

In a city fuelled by foie gras and good burgundy, von der Leyen cut a somewhat ascetic figure, with a formidable work ethic and little enthusiasm for the Brussels social circuit. She set up shop on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont building, the commission’s headquarters, living in a 20-square-metre, windowless converted apartment next to her office.

The contrast between von der Leyen, a vegetarian, and her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, a bon vivant from Luxembourg with a fondness for fine wine, could hardly have been more acute. While Juncker had enthusiastically delegated tasks, the new president focused on minute details. (On the outbound leg of her trip to Kyiv, von der Leyen did her own headcount of the reporters accompanying her on the plane to Poland, just to make sure no one had been left behind.) “She has a very structured and analytical mind, as you might expect from a doctor,” says one official. “Juncker was a pure politician to his fingertips, who rarely read past page two.”

Compounding the impression of a distant president was her reliance on a tiny circle of trusted advisers who joined her from Berlin, notably Björn Seibert, her cabinet chief, and her longtime communications adviser Jens Flosdorff. Even members of her own cabinet sometimes found themselves poorly briefed on what was going on.

Von der Leyen’s early response to the Covid outbreak in 2020 did nothing to enhance her reputation. The uproar was especially bitter in Italy, where morgues were overflowing and the EU was seen as being absent without leave. Matters got worse after von der Leyen spearheaded a vaccine-procurement programme for the entire bloc that ended up delivering initial doses at a glacial pace. At video summits in early 2021, she faced pointed interrogations from Merkel, the then-Italian prime minister Mario Draghi and others, as she set out detailed slideshows on vaccine delivery forecasts.

Germany’s politicians and media were vicious towards Brussels and its commission president, as drugmaker AstraZeneca repeatedly slashed EU delivery figures while maintaining a hearty pace in its UK base. Olaf Scholz, Germany’s chancellor who was then finance minister, described the EU vaccine strategy as a “shit show” during a cabinet meeting. Members of von der Leyen’s own CDU were also vituperative.

Reflecting on those grim months, von der Leyen told me she had been aware that her vaccination strategy would take a bashing in Germany, because EU-wide procurement meant doses were spread among member states, rather than going to countries with the deepest pockets. “It was of existential importance for the EU — if you are big or small or rich or not so rich — that you have the same access to the vaccine. Otherwise it would have torn Europe apart,” she said. “In hindsight, it was right.”

Instead of breaking von der Leyen’s presidency, the episode marked a turning point. In spring 2021, vaccines started flowing far more freely, and the commission emerged from the crisis with its powers enhanced. It is now working on plans to replicate the model of common EU procurement to increase the production of weapons and ammunition for Ukraine.

Von der Leyen helped set another important precedent when member states agreed on €800bn of joint borrowing in 2020 to pay for Covid recovery. It was a major expansion of the commission’s fiscal power and a potential blueprint for future collective action. It also conferred a PR opportunity, as von der Leyen toured European capitals blessing local recovery plans and lining up multibillion-euro cheques. “We have learnt that if the situation is serious and requires European-wide action, it will be tackled rapidly at an EU level,” says Welle, the retired European parliament official. “The EU is no longer just a legislative machine.”

Von der Leyen’s office in Brussels is spacious, with sweeping views of the surrounding architectural hodgepodge. The walls and cabinets are adorned with photos of her family and numerous horses. Among them is her beloved pony, Dolly, who came to the attention of the German media last year when she was killed by a wolf that strayed on to the property. A large black-and-white photograph taken in 1956 shows a meeting of the European Coal and Steel Community, the early engine of postwar European integration. Standing behind German chancellor Konrad Adenauer is a young, dark-haired man with a broad smile: Ernst Albrecht, von der Leyen’s father.

As we stood in her office late last month, von der Leyen gazed at the picture. He was 15 years old when the second world war ended, she recalled. “He had witnessed the horrors of the war,” including the death and destruction Nazi Germany had brought upon the world. “The country was destroyed, completely devastated and isolated. His aspiration was for one thing: Europe.”

The significance of Europe for postwar Germans made a deep impression on the young von der Leyen. “This was the only way to find peace again,” said the commission president, who thinks of herself as being born a European and only finding her German identity later. Those feelings grew with the fall of the Berlin Wall, as she witnessed East Germans’ hunger for freedom. “It was electrifying for me to see. And they were right — it is extraordinary. This sharpens your mind, to be aware that this is not a given. It is not to be taken for granted.”

From her perch in the Berlaymont, and with her shaky start behind her, von der Leyen has steadily consolidated control over the sprawling EU machine. Her right hand in this endeavour has been Seibert, 42, who plays a central role in relations with member states and EU partners. A former academic who specialised in European defence policy, he has none of the flamboyance displayed by Martin Selmayr, the former commission secretary-general and chief of staff to Juncker, who revelled in his Machiavellian public image. An understated figure who works long hours, hurrying between meetings in trainers, Seibert is often seen by von der Leyen’s side. But he never gets between her and the limelight.

In late 2021, when von der Leyen decided to collaborate with Biden’s administration drafting Russia sanctions, Seibert worked closely with partners in the US including Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser. The two sides underwent weeks of intensive technical work in secure rooms, attempting to mesh their trade and sanctions systems. At the time, many European countries, including France and Germany, were sceptical of the US’s increasingly dire warnings that Russia was planning an all-out invasion. The sanctions project, von der Leyen said, was odd in some ways given hopes that it would “never, ever [see] daylight”. But, she added, “we all know the rest of the story”.

The partnership von der Leyen has built with Biden is vital to her influence in Europe, and it has given the commission unprecedented status. Needless to say, the prospects for this transatlantic alliance will hinge on the outcome of the next US election. Biden, she said, has “a deep understanding for Europe, and vice versa, I have a deep understanding for the US, so the match is perfect. We understand each other.”

Von der Leyen’s hyper-centralised leadership may have enhanced her own profile, but it infuriates many of her subordinates, who complain of “dysfunctional” decision-making. Decisions on lesser matters, such as personnel, can be delayed for months. The department that handles the enormously sensitive matter of relations with Ukraine and the western Balkans, for example, was without a permanent director-general for more than two years. Von der Leyen and her cabinet chief have also generated resentment by bypassing commissioners and dealing directly with the permanent civil servants who head key departments, summoning them to her office for marathon weekend meetings. “There are people who feel they are not trusted, even though they are devoted to the job,” said one official. “They are left in the cold.”

Policies can sometimes seemingly spring up from nowhere, prompting a scramble down the ranks to fill in the substance. The notion of a European “sovereignty fund” to support green technologies, for example, appeared in von der Leyen’s State of the Union speech to the European parliament in September 2022 with little prior internal debate. Seven months later, officials are still unclear where the money will come from or how it will be used.

So far, the grousing of EU bureaucrats has done nothing to inhibit von der Leyen. She is already the most powerful commission president since Jacques Delors, who wrapped up a consequential decade at the helm in 1995, argues Peter Ludlow, an EU historian and analyst. The danger, according to some observers, is if she pushes the commission far enough it could prompt a backlash from member states.

Von der Leyen is currently in a multifront stand-off with Poland, a key Nato member bordering Ukraine, which is run by a government at loggerheads with Brussels over rule of law and EU cultural values. Von der Leyen has been withholding tens of billions of euros of funding in a bid to pressure Warsaw to reform its politically suppressed judiciary, a campaign that has yet to bear fruit.

In March, Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki told me he was worried about signs of “mission creep” in Brussels. He did not directly blame von der Leyen. But he complained the commission’s remit was being expanded into more and more areas. “This federalisation they propose de facto means centralisation,” he said. “This is why there was Brexit. The British people didn’t want more and more . . . to be dealt with in Brussels.” Asked if he would support a second term for von der Leyen, he said, “It remains to be seen what our position [will be], and how we are treated at that time. Now it’s a premature question.”

When I asked her about complaints that Brussels was becoming overcentralised, von der Leyen pointed to the number of emergencies she’d had to handle. “In a crisis, you have the choice between top-down or not leading,” she said. “There are some critical issues where you really have to give directions and lead the way and make sure results are achieved. The speed is brutal, so you gather the fastest and most efficient people.” The commission, she continued, had no choice but to step forward when its 27 capitals demanded EU-wide policy answers. “It means sometimes you have to — think of health, energy and defence — find solutions where you initially lack the tools,” she said. “Now, whatever happens, you hear the question, ‘where is Europe?’”

This month, Emmanuel Macron sat across from Xi Jinping in front of a pond in Guangzhou, having tea. With TV cameras at a discreet distance, Xi held forth about China’s economic and industrial development. The ceremony followed a stroll the two men took in the immaculately manicured Pine Garden at the foot of Baiyun Mountain. It was the culmination of three days of pageantry and spectacle.

Von der Leyen, who joined for part of the trip, received a far lower-key welcome. This could partly be explained by the fact that, unlike the French president, she was not on a state visit. But the apparent snub, quickly noted by the media, undermined efforts by both Macron and von der Leyen to portray a picture of European unity. (Macron made things worse on the flight home, during an interview in which he called on Europe to distance itself from US-China tensions over Taiwan.)

The botched visit undercut months of behind-the-scenes work between the European commission and EU capitals, seeking to forge a more coherent policy towards Beijing. Von der Leyen laid the foundations in a speech earlier this month, describing an EU approach that recognises the deep economic ties between Europe and China, while avoiding the aggressive “decoupling” advocated by many politicians in Washington. She urged the EU to ensure that its companies’ capital and expertise were not used to enhance the military and intelligence capabilities of the bloc’s “systemic rivals” — of which China is one.

Von der Leyen won praise among EU diplomats for the speech, which “set out a clear course on China”, according to one. But the messy episode in Beijing underscored the limits of von der Leyen’s influence. EU leaders including Macron and Scholz are torn between preserving business ties with China and the Biden administration’s demands for a tougher line. “There is a wider leadership vacuum in European politics and it’s a real problem,” said an EU official. “Von der Leyen can’t fully compensate for this.”

One of von der Leyen’s messages to Beijing was the need for China to recognise just how far the war in Ukraine is reshaping Europe’s attitudes to its partnerships around the world. How Xi handled his “no limits” friendship with Vladimir Putin would, she warned, be a key determinant in EU-China relations.

She cast Putin’s war on Ukraine as part of a wider battle for “the future of democracies”. “Are we taking seriously the principle that we established after world war two, that borders cannot be changed by force?” she asked me on the train from Kyiv. “Now I realise every generation has to stand up for the principles of democracy. If you don’t care for democracy and the principles it’s built upon, then it’s gone.”

This thinking underpinned what was arguably the most seismic decision for the future of the union under von der Leyen’s watch, when member states voted to give Ukraine candidate status for EU membership in June 2022. Momentum behind the project has only grown, with officials openly discussing whether accession talks start before next year’s EU elections.

Von der Leyen’s visit to Kyiv in February was meant to show how seriously she takes this. The trip was full of symbolism about the promise of EU membership, such as von der Leyen’s visit to a post office in Maidan Square. She touted an EU project that provides energy-efficient lightbulbs to Ukrainians. Standing at a post office counter, the president watched a citizen of Kyiv receive his box of new bulbs, pointing out the EU energy consumption rating to him. “It’s the best that’s possible,” she noted, the Ukrainian prime minister standing approvingly next to her. Outside the post office, Denys Lifintsev, an academic at Kyiv National Economic University, described the significance of EU membership. “I believe she supports us sincerely — it’s not just a gesture,” he said, before air-raid sirens forced us to part ways.

Member states are, however, increasingly conscious of the massive burden Ukraine’s accession would impose, potentially changing the EU beyond recognition. The union would be absorbing a devastated country with a population the size of Spain. It would also have to address the candidacies of a number of other countries, including in the western Balkans. Far-reaching reforms of EU decision-making and budget policy would have to be on the cards, realities that EU leaders, including von der Leyen, have yet to explain to European citizens. The cost of reconstruction will be stratospheric; the consequences of admitting an agricultural powerhouse like Ukraine to the single market nightmarishly complex.

Despite hopes for expediency in Kyiv, the process could easily take a decade or more and will rely on a ceasefire being reached in the war. Even if she wins a second term, it is unlikely that von der Leyen will be in office when the time comes to make good on Ukraine’s aspirations for EU membership. She readily acknowledged the process would not be easy, and that it would change the EU, just as the bloc was reshaped with the admission of former communist nations after the end of the cold war. But Kyiv, she said, was “adamantly determined to move forward with this. If you need to withstand the psychological pressure a war puts on you on a daily basis, you need hope.” EU membership, she added, “is at the centre of their hope and their motivation”.

A week before her trip to Kyiv in February, von der Leyen hosted a champagne reception for European ambassadors, lawmakers and officials. As dozens of black sedans crept along the narrow street, guests filed between potted plants along a red carpet, walking past a large framed picture where the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for its contribution to peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.

Von der Leyen stood on stage and addressed the audience, pointing out it was the first reception she had held there since the eve of the pandemic. The period, she said, had been the toughest in the union’s recent history, but in crisis after crisis the member states had discovered new reasons to stick together. After wrapping up with a cry of “long live Europe” in German, French and English, she picked her predecessor Juncker out of the crowd and pulled the 68-year-old politician on to the stage. Together they listened to a school orchestra play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.

The children, von der Leyen pointed out, were from the European School in Brussels, which she once attended. The underlying message was hard to miss: this is a commission president from the heart of Europe, a creature of the union rather than a single member state. She has used her position to give her institution new geopolitical stature. Whoever follows her may not manage to expand its powers further, but they at least have the option to. When the music stopped, von der Leyen disappeared into the crowd, a gaggle of diplomats following behind.

Sam Fleming is the FT’s Brussels bureau chief. Additional reporting from Guy Chazan in Berlin and Javier Espinoza in Brussels

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