Self-styled ‘pitiless’ minister who will decide Greece’s fate

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has been accused of having a simplistic, “tax collector’s approach” to economics.

LONDON - He missed on becoming German chancellor. He also missed the opportunity to become the country's president. But over the next few weeks, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble will be the man who will decide the future of Europe's single currency.

For it will be up to him to decide whether Greece gets more money or is allowed to go bankrupt, and face eviction from the euro zone.

Throughout his eventful life, Dr Schaeuble, 73, has gone against the trend. Born towards the end of World War II, he belongs to the first generation of Germans with no personal recollection of the horrors of that period.

Youngsters of his generation were either attracted to making money in the German "economic miracle" which followed the war, or devoted their teenage years to student politics.

Dr Schaeuble, however, appeared to want nothing more than the middle-class respectability of a state-employed taxman. He studied law and economics at his hometown's Freiburg University, one of Germany's oldest and most distinguished, where he specialised in taxation.

In 1972, however, he decided on something riskier than tax collection - he went into politics. He joined the centre-right Christian Democrats and was elected a member of Parliament.

Because he was so dependable, he rose fast: a mere nine years after he entered politics, he was the Christian Democrats' chief whip, and by 1982 he was chief of staff to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, in effect the government's influential gatekeeper.

Commentators scoffed at Dr Schaeuble's grand title of "Federal Minister for Special Affairs", but the two men complemented each other: Mr Kohl was the man of vision with no attention to detail, while Dr Schaeuble loved nothing better than imposing order on the paper trail which his political master left behind.

It was Dr Schaeuble who dealt with the practicalities of Germany's reunification during the early 1990s, including drafting the thousands of treaties and other documents required.

German reunification was the highlight of Dr Schaeuble's life, yet it was followed by a string of terrible personal and professional disappointments.

During an election rally in 1990, he was shot in the back by a deranged man. Although surgeons succeeded in saving his life, he was permanently confined to a wheelchair.

He returned to politics, and was widely tipped as Germany's next chancellor. But a scandal over the finances of his party torpedoed him; the job went instead to Dr Angela Merkel, the current German leader.

And Dr Merkel was not particularly gracious towards the man she defeated: she opposed his election as German president, a ceremonial post which nevertheless carries great moral authority.

So, within a decade, Dr Schaeuble missed on every single top job available.

Still, few people were more gracious in accepting defeat, or more steadfast in dealing with misfortune. Three months after surviving the assassination attempt, he insisted on a comeback rally: "I continue from where I was rudely interrupted", he told thousands of cheering voters.

He learnt to manoeuvre his wheelchair unaided with such dexterity that people who work with him hardly notice his disability. At international summits, he expects no special treatment, and is far more active than many of his peers.

He often resented the way Chancellor Merkel treated him, but continued to serve her loyally, first as interior minister where he adopted an uncompromising stance against domestic terrorism, and then as finance minister, a position he has held since 2009.

Despite his image as a rules-fixated taxman, Dr Schaeuble is a man of deep convictions. He is a keen supporter of European integration and believes in Germany's responsibility to make this happen.

He also passionately believes that Europe is about good governance and personal responsibility; that's the essence of his current clash with Greece.

As he sees it, this is not a matter of European solidarity: the Greeks got €240 billion (S$363 billion) of loans over the past few years just to avoid bankruptcy, the biggest bailout in history.

Greece was also the beneficiary of an additional €50 billion in grants from Europe over the past two decades; to both these sums, Germany contributed the lion's share.

So, to accuse the Germans of being heartless is, Dr Schaeuble argues, just as outrageous and stupid as to portray him in Nazi uniforms, which Greek newspapers regularly do.

For him, the fight is not about Greece, but about principles such as that each government is responsible for its actions, that no nation should spend more than it earns, and that everyone should pay off their debts, on time and in full.

He cares little for critics - and particularly those in the United States - who accuse him of having a simplistic, "tax collector's approach" to economics; he describes himself as "pitiless" in his management of Germany's public purse, and is proud of the results.

Still, over the next few weeks, Dr Schaeuble will need to confront the one choice he has sought to avoid: whether, against his instincts and better judgment, he allows himself to be morally blackmailed into giving Greece more money, or whether he pulls the plug on Greece with all the unforeseen consequences which this may entail.

The decision will be presented as a European one, but will ultimately be taken by one man: the finance minister of Europe's biggest and wealthiest nation.

Mr Peter Schuetz, Dr Schaeuble's biographer, calls him the "most honest man" he knows, "although not always the most charming". But that is precisely how the German electorate likes its politicians. And as long as he has got the support of his nation, nothing will stop Wolfgang Schaeuble from continuing to hold Europe's purse.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com


This article was first published on May 18, 2015.
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