18:00 GMT30 May 2020
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    German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a close ally of the soon-to-retire German chancellor, has become a surprise challenger to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president after days of tough negotiations between EU leaders.

    Von der Leyen, 60, has subsequently headed three major ministries in German government (family affairs and youth, labour and social affairs, and defence). But despite her being a sort of political heavyweight, her nomination has prompted criticism from across the political divide in Germany.

    Markus Soder, who leads the Merkel-aligned, Bavarian-based Christian Social Union, called von der Leyen’s nomination “a classic victory of backroom politics over democracy", while one of the regional offices of the Alternative for Germany tweeted: “She destroyed the Bundeswehr. Now she can destroy the EU. Doesn't sound so bad.”

    “Von der Leyen is out weakest minister,” said Martin Schulz, a former German president. “That is apparently enough to become Head of the Commission.”

    Her tenure as defence minister has recently come under increased scrutiny in Germany. “The Bundeswehr’s condition is catastrophic,” Rupert Scholz, one of her predecessors in the post, said last week.

    ‘Shortage Upon Shortage’

    • Recent reports in German media paint a sordid picture of endemic shortage of equipment in the national armed forces. For instance, Spiegel reported in May that out of Germany’s 128 Eurofighter jets, only ten were ready for combat missions due to a technical failure in their cooling systems.
    • Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces Hans-Peter Bartels stated in a January report that less than half of Germany’s tanks, warships and aircraft suffered from a shortage of parts.
    • Bartels, who called the Bundeswehr a "bureaucratic monster", said that there was also a lack of personal equipment, such as protective vests, boots, clothing, modern helmets and night-vision devices. “There is neither enough personnel nor material, and often one confronts shortage upon shortage,” he concluded.

    Staffing Shortfall

    • The number of active personnel in the Bundeswehr is supposed to grow from 181,000 currently to 198,500 by 2025 – but the number of new recruits fell from 23,000 in 2017 to 20,000 in 2018. Hans-Peter Bartels lamented that the overall growth (4,000 more professional soldiers in 2017-2018) was due to the active soldiers extending their contracts rather than an influx of new blood.
    • The lack of combat-ready equipment appears to have affected the already serving personnel as well. In 2017, 19 out of 129 helicopter pilots (over one in ten pilots) lost their flight licenses because they didn't meet the target for flight hours.

    Allegations of Misusing Taxpayers’ Euros

    • The German parliament is currently holding an investigation into wrongdoings in the awarding of contracts worth hundreds of millions of euros to outside advisers by the defence ministry under von der Leyen. She has admitted that her ministry had breached the procedure regarding the allocation of contracts, and promised to prevent it from happening again through a series of reforms.
    • In a separate case, the ministry came under fire over the drawn-out repair of the navy's training ship, called Gorch Fock, which ended up costing €135 million ($152m) instead of the initial €10 million.

    Not Getting Along With the Military

    • In 2017, following the arrest of a soldier who was allegedly posing as a Syrian refugee and planning a “false flag” gun attack, von der Leyen said the army had an “attitude problem” and was suffering from “leadership weakness at various levels”.
    • But both the armed forces and politicians hit back at her comments. Rainer Arnold, a spokesman for the Social Democrats, demanded that she apologise and said that “every honest soldier feels insulted.”
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