Ursula von der who? What social media can tell us about the new EU Commission lead

Ursula von der who? What social media can tell us about the new EU Commission lead
By Rachael Kennedy
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German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen has been nominated to take over the EU Commission leadership from Jean-Claude Juncker — do people know who she is, where is she talked, and what are people saying?


Germany's defence minister Ursula von der Leyen has been nominated to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker in the EU Commission's top job after three days of tense negotiations between state leaders.

The suggestion — said to be made by French President Emmanuel Macron — came as a surprise to some as the bloc's Spitzenkandidat process looked to be ditched after all.

A mixed reaction from MEPs then followed, with high-level politicians such as Macron tweeting about the "strong and experienced" new leadership, while others, such as German MP Martin Schulz, criticised the "weakest minister".

But what has the rest of Europe got to say? And do they know who the candidate is?

Euronews has taken a look at the nominee on social media and trending discussions around the continent.

Was she a talking point then AND now?

Von der Leyen is relatively new to social media herself. At the time of writing, the only personal, verified account she holds — which is also the only platform she links to on her webpage — is Instagram.

Opening the account in October 2018, the 60-year-old has steadily gained a modest following of 15,000 people, averaging around 1,500 new followers a month.

We can compare this number to her professional counterparts in other EU nations on their most-used profiles, such as the UK's Defence Secretary Penny Mourdant, who has 63,000 followers on Twitter.

France's Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly boasts 37,000 followers, also on Twitter.

But we all understand that a follower count doesn't necessarily indicate levels of popularity or notoriety, and a 9-month-old social media presence pales in comparison to those with several years.

Are people searching for her name?

Google Trends analytics concerning searches for von der Leyen's name in the past week suggest she hasn't recently served as a great talking point — which could be seen as either positive or negative.

The spike marks the announcement of her nomination, where users in Hungary became the most likely to search her name.

Users in the Czech Republic and Luxembourg came second and third respectively.

Comparing searches for her name to other slated leadership candidates Frans Timmermans and Manfred Weber over the last three months, we can see von der Leyen was bottom of the pile.

Both searches for Timmermans and Weber spiked in May amid the leadup to the European elections.

But stretching this comparison back over the last five years, the results push von der Leyen to the top of the chart, with almost twice as many searches than Timmermans.

Naturally, the majority of users searching Google during this period for von der Leyen — who became defence minister in 2013 — were in Germany.

What are people searching?

A list of the top queries searched on Google in the last 24 hours has been seen by Euronews, and suggests many people simply do not know who von der Leyen is.


Those queries are:

  • who is ursula von der leyen
  • how old is ursula von der leyen
  • what does ursula von der leyen think of brexit
  • how tall is ursula von der leyen
  • what does ursula von der leyen think about refugees
  • how to pronounce ursula von der leyen
  • why does macron not want weber
  • if von der leyen is rejected who is next
  • will von der leyen be approved
  • what party is ursula von der leyen
  • who will succeed van der leyen?
  • how is it to work with van der leyen

Where is she being talked about?

In the past week, the countries that saw the most Google searches for Ursula von der Leyen were Hungary, the Czech Republic and Luxembourg - but she featured most in discussions on social media in Germany.

An analysis of tweets from the TalkWalker analytics tool revealed that 17,500 tweets mentioning the defence minister originated from Germany.

Tweets from France mentioned her name just over 7,000 times, while the United Kingdom and Poland racked up more than 6,000 mentions each.

In a similar respect to the Google searches, mentions of von der Leyen's name on Twitter were also fairly low until around the time of her nomination on Monday.


What are people saying?

A brief view of the different emojis used alongside Twitter mentions of von der Leyen paint an interesting picture of the sentiment felt by her nomination.

The most-used emoji was a flag of the EU, followed by flags from several member states.

Beyond this, there appear to be a smattering of positive emojis, but also confusion - interpreted via the shrugs and contemplation — and negativity — from facepalms, the clown and sick-looking faces.


Sentiment by country

A deeper look at individual tweets from users in different countries — aside from politicians' tweets — provide a more specific view on the sentiments felt.

Countries that knew von der Leyen's background were more likely to be critical of the nomination itself, while others critiqued the EU process in general.



Outside of general messages of congratulations from some political figures, tweets from Germany on the EU nomination were somewhat negative.

Von der Leyen was once tipped to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, but her reputation slumped in Germany amid an investigation into a spending scandal involving her ministry and her own rocky relationship with the German armed forces.

"Free after the Greens: "Von der Leyen, the best idea Europe ever had." Or: A collective breath of relief goes through the Bundeswehr [armed forces]."

"Can someone explain to me how it has come about that the "scandal von der Leyen" should suddenly become EU President ??? Can it all be just a bad joke, right? I do not get it..."

"Dear #EU Parliament, please give Europe dignity and refuse #Leyen as EU Commission President. As a minister of defence, she has completely failed and is still sinking into scandals. To confirm her would be to undermine Europe."



In Austria, there appeared to be more confusion at the nomination.

"There are many eternal mysteries...Why doesn't Tarzan have a beard? Why does Batman never have to go to the bathroom? Why Ursula von der Leyen as EU Commission President?"

"Phew, I'm having a hard time accepting that Ursula von der Leyen, as EU Commission President, is now being labelled "women's power." It's not just about whether women should rise to power as well (of course!), But also which woman or man is the best fit for a job\_."_


"Ursula von der Leyen at the Commission, a German woman spattered by numerous scandals in her country, very close to Merkel... In short: Merkel's choices, disguised as feminist victories."

United Kingdom

A huge number of the top mentions from the UK were from Brexiteers highlighting the surprise in the nomination — someone they had never heard of — and suggesting that it was counterproductive to democracy.


Others asked if von der Leyen would be a better candidate than original favourite Manfred Weber.


Sarcasm dominated the conversation in Poland, which was mainly directed toward the ruling PiS party.

PiS, which is known for its anti-LGBT and anti-immigration policies, was a staunch opponent of an EU Commission led by Frans Timmermans but said it had achieved what it wanted after the nomination of von der Leyen.

However, social media users have pointed out that the 60-year-old nominee is known for her support for improving LGBT rights and has criticised hard-line policies on immigration. This, and the fact that Timmermans would serve as vice president.

"Prime Minister Morawiecki presents the candidacy of the German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen as the head of the European Commission as a Polish success. What a metamorphosis!"


"Mrs Ursula von der Leyen is actually the best choice for Poland. She is a good acquaintance of Angela Merkel, she wants to liquidate nation-states, supports LGBT rights, and was in favour of overthrowing the PiS government 'supporting resistance movements in Poland.' This success just stunned me..."

"The head of the EC is Ursula von der Leyen, voting for single-sex marriages, supporting the right to adopt children by homosexuals who are married, opposing the violation of the rule of law by PiS, which wants the United States of Europe. Timmermans is the deputy head of the EC. That's how successful the PiS is!"


Meanwhile, the Italians were less critical of von der Leyen taking up the post than they were about feeling left out of the EU's top spots.

"The Italian flag? We are still in Europe?"

"'Two women at the helm of Europe: von der Leyen at the Commission, Lagarde at the ECB'It seems a good choice (obviously Italy is cut off from everything. But on TV they will tell you about [Prime Minister Giuseppe] Conte's great victory ?)"



Like the Germans, tweets from the Dutch focused more on von der Leyen's history and qualification for the EU role.

"That the failing German minister Von der Leyen can be catapulted out of nowhere from a back room to be the highest official of the EU shows yet again what kind of an undemocratic monster the EU is. The British were quite right when they voted out."

"Dear Dutchmen: Ursula von der Leyen is your new EU president. You have not chosen her, and you cannot fire her. She decides on your EU laws. Your leaders and MEPs cannot, but they can. This is EU democracy. You wanted it that way."

However, some decided to look to von der Leyen's more personal roles as a means for qualification.


"Ursula von der Leyen has 7 kids. She should be able to handle the Commission just fine, I think, based on that qualification alone."

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