An Interview with Ursula von der Leyen

An interview by Maximilian Brockmann S6DEA guestwriter from the Accredited European School of Strasbourg.

M: I’m very glad I’m finally getting the opportunity to get this interview up and running; your secretary told me that you just had an interview with the New York Times – now sitting here after that is a bit mind-blowing to be honest. 

U: I really enjoy that; I’m looking forward to it so let’s get started!  

M: During the Model European Council week, we were hotly debating but, in the evenings, we would simmer down in the so called ‘social-gatherings’. My question is how some of the ministers behind the scenes are; could you give us some more insight to understand the personality of more of them.  

U: Maximillian of course all members of the European Council are 100% professionals, so you always try to keep your temper and to shout/be loud does not help at all. But of course, it’s sometimes tough because everybody has to get out the best for the member state so one must respect this. In the very end there are always people in the council, heads of state of governments in the council that you really like, and my personal experience is that a good relationship helps a lot when it comes to tough compromises; because then you know there is on both sides the willingness really to find a solution and to help each other…it’s personally rewarding and it’s good for the work for Europe.  

M: We know from our meetings that some countries are leaning towards a more right-wing thinking path. As an aspiring journalist, to help freedom of press and moreover freedom of speech, do you think maybe a checks and balance system could be introduced? I go back to a tweet from the 9th of April that you tweeted about the murder of the Greek journalist George Karaivaz. 

U: Maximillian, if there’s anything that unites us then it is the pursuit of freedom, equality and justice and that’s really what our European Union is about! As you know we attach great value to democracy, the rule of law, and the protection of fundamental rights… free speech and media freedom is at the core of our democracies. For me it’s important journalists and members of civil society need to feel absolutely safe to ask questions that not everybody likes- to look into the truth. Their task is to inform the public. Indeed, here in Europe we have seen the murder of journalists- like George in Greece- but also Daphne in Malta or Ján Kuciak in Slovakia and we see also in the neighboring countries the fate of political activists such as Alexei Navalny, for example, in Russia. These people are really heroes because they sacrificed their health, their life, their freedom for the truth- to give us the truth, and it is so important that Europe speaks. This is why as a Commission we have started an annual exercise where we do a very thorough check under rule of law in all the member states, we called it the Rule of Law report once a year. We look at the checks and balances that show anti-corruption, media freedom and so on. Later this year we will look at an initiative lending action by member states to protect specifically journalists and guarantee their safety across the European Union.  

M: You talked about the development of the European Union as a Union as a whole which also of course young people like myself have a part in and will be part of the future hopefully so how do you think young people could be more involved? What is some advice you could give to someone like me and all the people participating in events like the Model European Council? 

U: Young people like you do already have a strong influence on European policies, just take for example the fight against climate change. You were, and you are, as a generation vocal- we hear you loud and clear and that’s good. Even if we don’t agree in detail, the young generation supports our goal to be a CO2 neutral continent in the world by 2050 and I must say our European Green Deal needs a lot of support. It’s not only the question of how you can be involved but I would even say Europe is counting on people like you because it’s now that you start to shape your future and it’s not only in politics where you can have a big influence- the Erasmus program is marvelous for young people in Europe. Youth exchange, get to know each other in the different member states and start to grow the network of like-minded Europeans who have this passion for Europe but also a vision of how you want to have your future. Then they get engaged and as I said it’s not only in politics there are many other places. We also have recently opened the platform for the Conference on the Future of Europe so there, very practically you can raise your voice, you can give your comments and you can talk about what really keeps you awake at night and Europe is listening because at the end, the voices of the Europeans will shape the result at the conference on the future of Europe. 

M: Speaking on young people and the future of Europe obviously right now we’re going through global pandemic so could you maybe give us some more insight on the progress of a digital green certificate and your vaccine strategy post 2022?  

U: At beginning we said at the end of September but now I think July is realistic and indeed this of course links with the question of the summer and travel. For that, we will have in the end of June the so-called digital green certificate which can help facilitate traveling in the summer. It just says either you are vaccinated, you have a negative PCR Test, or you overcame covid and thus have antibodies; this just tells the member states that you are not transmitting the disease. This helps of course enormously because it is recognized in all member states. Before the New York Times interview and your interview, a new contract for the year 2022-2023 with BioNTech/Pfizer covering 1.8 billion doses, is planned for teenagers and children who will also have to be vaccinated. People might see a boost for immunity at a certain point in time, as you know from other vaccinations and if there is a variant that does not respond to the vaccines here today, we must engineer the mRNA vaccines rapidly. 

So, what I want to say is we’re in for the long haul, things are getting better, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but we have to be prepared to keep the immunity of the European people high to make traveling easy!  

M: At your speech during MEC you were also asked a question by the Commission president that was playing your role. Being a key figure for many of the women and girls out there, could you maybe give us some more insight on how your gender equality strategy (article about this in our first edition) will shape the future for women’s rights and what could be done at a European level to attract more young women to STEM positions? 

U: Gender equality and human rights go to the core of who we are and the values of our union; before the end of the year, we will put forward legislation aiming to prevent and to combat violence against women. I think our democracies and our economy are stronger with equal participation of women, not because women are better, but because us women might have a different view of the world; we see other risks and opportunities and if you have a combination of men and women looking at the risks and opportunities, you have a better result. That’s actually also reason why I think we need more women in leadership positions. My college here is the very first gender balanced college and we want to repeat the success overtime at all management levels in the Commission so currently woman holds more than 40% of top positions in the Commission.  

It is the right way forward and a last point on that- I always think it is important to keep in mind that when we speak about respect and dignity, we have to be very clear that this also includes all other groups- minorities, for example, that we are very vigilant and cannot allow LGBTQ free zones to spread in our member states. We cannot allow Romas to be discriminated and we certainly have to fight the ugly face of anti-Semitism and racism in any corner of the European Union. What I want to say is that it’s a constant fight to uphold human rights and equal rights and equal opportunities all across Europe regardless of whom you love or where you come from.  

M: You talked about bringing more women into a management position how do we bring such young women into those STEM positions? 

U: You look at the figures first of all, then you look at the promotion process and see if, overtime, there are as many women as men in those positions. It’s not only about the top position, but it’s also a question of middle management- there you also find unconscious biases or hidden discrimination. Another point is encouraging young women to take the opportunity. This is my experience as a woman in a leadership position: encourage them, tell them. Grab the opportunity so it’s a systematic process. It’s a lot of communication and transparency but also looking into the outcomes of the promoting processes to see where the deficits are. Targets must be set. Departments or companies have to explain if they don’t meet the objective targets: why not?  

M: Finally, will we see another appearance of yours next year at the MEC 2022 which is scheduled to be in Munich and maybe in person; Would that be a possibility?  

U: I would love to as an alumnus of the European School. But of course, I cannot promise it right now because you can imagine that the schedule for 2022 would require me to be in Munich at a certain distinct point in time and is not clear right now.  

But let’s put it this way: please send me an invitation, so we’ll see what you all actually look like.  

Thank you to all for giving me this great opportunity, it was a real honour to have this take place!