Mother of seven takes on Merkel

Rising star who wants Germans to speak English seen as next chancellor

She is a rising star in European politics - the one woman who could, it is claimed, succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor. A mother of seven, Ursula von der Leyen is Germany's labour minister and a role model for women juggling demanding careers with family commitments.

And in an interview, the 54 year-old has some advice for young people struggling to find work. How best to solve Europe's youth unemployment crisis? Make young people learn English.

"English must be well-known as a second language, because the labour market is global and whoever wants an enduring career must have facility in English," she said.

"We're not a closed national economy - our customers are global."

This week von der Leyen will attend a summit on unemployment, as the leaders of the European Union struggle to cope with rising numbers of under-25s who are without a job. Across the EU, 23.5 per cent of all young people are unemployed.

And, perhaps surprisingly for someone whose party is demanding that German be given equal EU status as English and French, von der Leyen suggests that learning English might be the answer. She says it should be adopted as the "second language" of Europe so young people can move more easily around the continent in search of work.

Speaking inside the Reichstag, Berlin, von der Leyen laughs when asked about her leadership ambitions. But Germany's second most powerful woman is widely seen as an effective minister, with a strong connection to voters.

Much of her appeal rests on the contrasts with Merkel.

Von der Leyen brings a touch of glamour to politics, and combines a ministerial career with raising her large family, who range in age from 13 to 25. The German chancellor, who has been married twice, is childless.

Parents in Germany often struggle to balance careers with family life because of the country's short school hours. Yet von der Leyen says that living in the US in the early 1990s had shown her the value of providing good child care for professionals.

She lived in California for four years while her husband Heiko, a professor of medical science, worked at Stanford University.

"The most important thing is to have a choice and a supporting environment, not to be forced either to stay at home, or have a hard job and lousy child care - because otherwise you are frustrated or feel torn."

She waged a long battle to introduce improved maternity and paternity benefits in her quest to encourage more Germans to have babies. Germany's birth rate, fewer than 8 births per 1000 people, is the lowest in the nation's history and reversing it has been one of Von der Leyen's most determined crusades. She firmly believes too many German women believe having children and a good career are mutually exclusive.

Earlier this year, von der Leyen defied the German chancellor by leading a rebellion demanding mandatory quotas for women on the boards of listed German firms.

Germany has faced intense anger across the eurozone for insisting on controlling public spending when millions are out of work. Germany's leaders have told the unemployed youth that the answer is to move.

A trained doctor, von der Leyen's father Ernst Albrecht was prime minister of the state of Lower Saxony before becoming a senior European civil servant.

"He was a good father and a good role model," she said. "Looking back I realise he had a lot of trouble and hard times, but he never brought that back home, so I hope my children see the same."

Power and grace

A conservative politician, Ursula von der Leyen, 54, was born to the job. Her father was a prominent Prime Minister of Lower Saxony.

A doctor, she spent five years in California, where her husband had a job at Stanford University. The couple say grace every evening and have seven children.

A German state and federal politician since 2003, von der Leyen is fluent in French and English.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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