There’s much to criticize about Wolfgang Schaeuble, Germany’s outgoing finance minister: It can be said that he is obsessive and spiteful, and that his humor at the expense of Greece often bordered on sadism. That he – and Chancellor Angela Merkel – did very little to resolve the Greek crisis. As we recently found out, Schaeuble favored Grexit up until the end of 2016, and he was actually ready to give Greece 50 billion euros to quit the euro.
Even though he was a keen federalist, he elevated Germany’s narrow interests above those of the European Union, and failed to advance a broader political vision for Europe. Even at home, Schaeuble’s focus on maintaining a balanced budget kept him away from another, much more important mission: that of bridging social inequalities – particularly the lingering chasm between western and eastern Germany. That failure was partly responsible for the rise of the far right in Sunday’s federal elections.
However, one ought to acknowledge that Schaeuble is an industrious worker of the conservative party, without any sign of divaesque behavior, and with a strong sense of partisan responsibility. Reports in the German press, and Schaeuble himself, had suggested that he did not wish to leave the Finance Ministry. After all, this is a man who can inspire awe among his European colleagues and it’s hard to imagine anyone who could enjoy the same degree of respect at a Eurogroup meeting.
Nevertheless, Schaeuble has agreed to step down to become president of the Bundestag – a move which is viewed as a political retirement of sorts. The man who had been destined to be chancellor – before his reputation took a battering in a CDU party funding scandal under ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl in the late 1990s – agreed to serve in Merkel’s cabinet after she snatched the party leadership in 2000. He backed her at the most difficult point of her tenure when she came under fire over immigration.
Now Schaeuble has agreed to step aside to ease talks for a coalition government. Over the years, he had many opportunities to undermine Merkel to take her position, or just to make her life difficult, but he chose not to, although their relations were not ideal.
Any comparison with Greece’s political class is disheartening.