Opening creches appeared to be of greater importance to her than maintaining defence readiness. As a result Germany’s air and ground forces remain under-manned and unready to this day. Recent discussions over the country supplying Leopard tanks to Ukraine were somewhat undermined by the fact that most of them are in deep storage and will take significant time to become operational.
Less than half of the much vaunted 224 Leopard 2 tanks were serviceable, while only five of the Navy’s 13 frigates were seaworthy. Not one single submarine at that time could put out to sea, and new warships were rejected as being inadequate.
Also, by 2018, 89 out of 138 jets operated by the Luftwaffe were unserviceable.
Germany still relies on the Tornado, an obsolete jack of all trades and master of none, and replacements are now long overdue.
Possibly the most serious of allegations made against her were of cronyism playing a role in the award of contracts worth millions by German defence ministry, possibly in breach of public procurement law.
In 2013, at the beginning of her tenure, Von der Leyen discharged the official who oversaw procurement and announced that external advisers would now be involved in overseeing significant projects.
In August 2018 Der Speigel carried a headline stating that Germany’s Defence Department paid up to 150 million euros annually to consultants.
Politico subsequently appeared to confirm this, reporting that in 2016 the ministry had spent up to €150 million on advisers while declaring only €2.9 million.
In December 2018 Von der Leyen admitted to the German parliament there had been “mistakes” in how external consultants were hired and said “this never should have happened.”
Von der Leyen was however fortunate to enjoy the patronage of Angela Merkel – both are members of the then ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – who in a traditional Brussels carve-up shoe-horned her into office as President of the European Commission, thus ensuring the CDU’s continued prime position in not only domestic but also EU decision making.
Since Von der Leyen’s move to Brussels, systems serviceability overall has improved significantly and new aircraft types are being introduced. However, Germany’s defence spending remains below 2% of GDP – the recommended minimum – at 1.49% leading to suggestions that Berlin is free-riding on NATO and in particular the U.S. Donald Trump in particular, during his Presidency, was very critical of Germany. even going so far as to threaten economic sanctions.
“If Germany as an example is paying 1 percent, and they are supposed to be paying 2 percent, you are talking about billions of dollars. Well, that means that last year, the year before, the year before, all of those years, they would owe us money, Nobody has ever brought that up. They just keep talking about the present. So if they are short one year and then you go into the new year, they never talk about the year they didn’t pay. But they actually in theory owe us that money. It’s not fair. It’s not fair,” – Donald Trump (2019).
Worryingly, given the problems outlined above, Germany still falls short of the recommended spend on new equipment – 20% of the defence budget – although the figures are a huge improvement over those during von Der Leyen’s time in charge when money was being seemingly frittered away on consultants.
Is Ursula von der Leyen heading for NATO’s top job?
Against this somewhat ignominious background, unbelievably to many,Ursula von der Leyen is currently being touted as the next NATO General Secretary – the current incumbent Jens Stoltenberg is set to step down in October of this year.
Her own five year term at the European Commission is due to expire in 2024. It is not known if she will seek a second term, although it is rumoured in Brussels that the German government would like to keep her in place.
“Germany’s backing is critical to whether von der Leyen can remain in power. She’ll need the current government to nominate her as the country’s representative on the European Commission before she can continue her reign. And, as the EU’s biggest country, Germany always carries significant weight over who gets the top jobs in Brussels,” POLITICO (April 19th 2023)
Ursula von der Leyen’s performance as Defence Minister may not have rendered her unsuitable for the Presidency of the European Commission – her predecessor had, after all, been Jean-Claude Juncker – but there are very serious questions over the wisdom of placing her in charge of the budget of the most powerful military bloc in history.
Main image: By Dirk Vorderstraße – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34048622