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Ursula von der Leyen – European Commission president who runs a tight ship

Ursula von der Leyen addresses MEPs. Photograph: Daina LE LARDIC/European Parliament.

Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen may have been fighting on opposite sides in the Brexit negotiations but the two leaders have more in common than meets the eye.

The European Commission president, 62, went to the same Brussels school as the Prime Minister, 56 – albeit at different times – and both are the children of politicians.

Ursula Albrecht, as she was then, left the Belgian capital in her early teens for Germany, where her father served as minister-president of Lower Saxony.

At the time, families of German politicians were targeted by the Red Army Faction terrorist group, and so when she moved to England to study at the London School of Economics in the late 1970s, she did so under an assumed name.

“Rose Ladson” lived in Earl’s Court in a flat above her landlord, Jadwiga Rostowska, and her son, Jacek Rostowski – who would become deputy prime minister of Poland.

Despite concerns about her safety, Ursula could be careless about security, Mr Rostowski remembers.

“One of the problems was that she didn’t properly close the front door to the house. Which, given that the Baader-Meinhof Gang were out to kidnap her or possibly kill her, seemed rather – well – not terribly careful,” he is reported to have said.

She was a fan of late nights and punk gigs, and recalls her time in London as one in which she “lived much more than I studied”.

“In 1978, I immersed myself for one year in this seething, international, colourful city. For me, coming from the rather monotonous, white Germany, that was fascinating,” she told newspaper Die Zeit in 2016.

Ursula switched her studies to medicine on her return to Germany a year later, where she met her future husband – aristocrat Heiko von der Leyen. The pair graduated as physicians from Hanover Medical School.

The couple went on to have seven children (almost as many as Mr Johnson is known to have fathered) and live on a farm near Hanover.

Mrs von der Leyen was a relatively unknown politician outside Germany before taking on the Commission presidency.

She launched her career in local politics in 2003, following in her father’s footsteps in Lower Saxony, before heading to Berlin as a family affairs minister under Angela Merkel.

But as an assertive woman, juggling a family alongside politics, she earned the derogatory nickname of “Shotgun Uschi”.

Her tenure as defence minister from 2013-2019 was bruising and plagued by reports of underperformance, so it was not surprising that she fancied a return to Brussels when Jean-Claude Juncker’s time in charge was up.

She became the first woman to lead the Commission when she took office on December 1 2019 – taking the helm at the most challenging of times, with Brexit and – although she did not know it then – the coronavirus pandemic looming.

Mrs von der Leyen – who once described Brexit as “a burst bubble of hollow promises” – oversaw the UK’s departure from the bloc in January 2020, and has been the ultimate arbiter in talks over the future relationship.

When the Prime Minister came to Brussels in December in a bid to salvage the negotiations, Mrs von der Leyen did not hide her steely nature as she told Mr Johnson to “keep distance” as they briefly removed their face coverings for the cameras.

She then told him to put the mask back on “immediately”, prompting Mr Johnson to respond: “You run a tight ship here, Ursula, and quite right too.”

The days of negotiations since then have proven that to be true.