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Key Merkel ally set to test Trump amid tensions with Europe
A close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to take the helm of the European Union (EU), posing a test for President Trump as he seeks to ramp up pressure on everything from trade to defense spending.
Ursula von der Leyen, one of Merkel's longtime Cabinet members, will soon become the next European Commission president, making her the EU's chief executive and one of its main negotiators on the world stage.
For Trump, who has long railed against European allies over everything from their protectionist trade policies to the amount of money they contribute to NATO, von der Leyen could prove a formidable rival.
"She's a German version of the steel magnolia," said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former editor for German newspaper Die Zeit. "There's this gentility about her but you also have a certain steeliness."
That demeanor could serve her well as she goes toe to toe with Trump at a time of escalating trade tensions. In recent months, the administration has threatened to slap $25 billion worth of tariffs on European goods, the latest salvo in a simmering trade war. As EU Commission president, von der Leyen will be on the front lines of that fight.
"She will be the one having to massage the president at a G7 meeting into not immediately throwing a thunderbolt of tariffs on German beer," Stelzenmüller said.
The 60-year-old von der Leyen, who was elected by a narrow margin on Tuesday by the European Parliament, is set to officially begin her new role on Nov. 1. Fluent in English, with a background in medicine and experience living in the U.S., she makes for a striking contrast to her predecessor, former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker. Not only is she the first woman to hold the EU's top job, but she is also the first German to do so in over half a century.
She is also staunchly in favor of preserving both the transatlantic relationship and European unity at a time when nationalist movements - some of them promoted by Trump allies like former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon - are gaining traction on the continent.
"The trust you placed in me is confidence you placed in Europe," von der Leyen said in a speech following the historic vote on Tuesday. "Your confidence in a united and strong Europe, from east to west, from south to north."
It's not clear yet how von der Leyen's leadership style will compare with that of Juncker, who was adept at backroom dealings and widely praised for his deft handling of Trump. In an interview with Bloomberg Television on Tuesday, she said her aim is "to convince our friends from the U.S. that it's better to find a good compromise and work together."
But von der Leyen, who as Merkel's defense minister crossed paths with Trump at the NATO summit last year, appears likely to butt heads with the president, who has expressed skepticism over European integration and has praised the U.K.'s decision to leave the EU.
"She is someone with a completely different vision to that of President Trump or Brexit Britain," said Nile Gardner, director of the Thatcher Center for Freedom at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "I think that she is someone who's likely to adopt a very adversarial approach toward President Trump."
Von der Leyen has already said she plans to push back on Trump's plans to impose more tariffs. She has also advocated in the past for the creation of an integrated European army, at a time when Trump wants allies to contribute more to NATO. And she seems likely to retain as one of her commissioners Margrethe Vestager, who has become the face of the EU's antitrust crusade against U.S. tech companies and whom Trump recently accused of "hating" America.
Von der Leyen herself has been critical of the president in the past, especially after a summit in Helsinki in which Trump refused to acknowledge Russian President Vladimir Putin's role in 2016 election interference.
"There is no clear strategy in this president's handling of Russia," she told German magazine Der Spiegel in July 2018, adding that he has sowed "unrest" in the transatlantic alliance using a mix of "hostility, tough negotiations and sometimes flattery."
She also defended the German chancellor, who has come under frequent attack from Trump. "His worldview had probably never taken into account a woman like Angela Merkel, a globally respected head of government with long experience," she told the magazine.
Von der Leyen is not without controversy in Europe - she has been accused of gross mismanagement of the German military and is an unpopular minister in her native country, according to polling. But observers suggest this is unlikely to faze her as she takes over her new position.
"Trump is going to see her as a tough cookie," said Sudha David-Wilp, the deputy director of the German Marshall Fund's office in Berlin.
"She will be judicious in her wording and how she approaches President Trump because she knows this relationship is very important for the EU and also her home country Germany," David-Wilp said.
But von der Leyen wants "to make sure she leaves a legacy," David-Wilp added, "and this is her chance to do it."