With Spain and Italy on the brink of needing full-scale rescues and Greece in open rebellion against the painful austerity diktats that came as a condition of its two bailouts, Germany is pushing for unprecedented steps to transfer sovereign power to the European Union in exchange for sharing the burdens of borrowing and spending. Germany — Europe’s most powerful economy — would shoulder much of the burden of such an arrangement, and Schaeuble may be his country’s most passionate proponent of doing so.
‘Whatever it takes’
“We will do whatever it takes to defend the euro,” Schaeuble said in an interview in the Reichstag, the home to Germany’s parliament that is itself a symbol of the tribulations of Europe’s 20th century. Russian graffiti covers many of its interior walls, left by troops who held the building in the waning days of World War II, and the building stands just feet away from what was once the Berlin Wall.
“If the crisis is severe, you will converge onto the solution faster. That’s the opportunity that lies in every crisis,” Schaeuble said, as staffers and parliamentarians preoccupied with Europe’s ailments bustled through the Reichstag’s vast halls. “Europe is complex, the decision-making as so often in democracies is not always swift, but that’s better than the old way of settling things here, by going to war with one another. . . . If needed, we can act very quickly.”
This is not the first time he has dealt with a crisis. As former chancellor Helmut Kohl’s interior minister when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he led the heady and complex work to reunite East and West Germany. But nine days after unification in 1990, a would-be assassin’s bullet left him paralyzed from the waist down. He returned to work just six weeks later, in a wheelchair.
For years, Schaeuble (pronounced SHOY-bleh) waited in the wings for Kohl to retire so that he could become chancellor. But Kohl never did; instead, his popularity plummeted, and his Christian Democratic Union was voted out of power in 1998. Schaeuble took over the party, intending to mount a new challenge for his country’s top job. Instead, a financial scandal in 2000 forced him to hand over the reins to Angela Merkel. Many said he was just the loyal fall guy.
When Merkel won the chancellery in 2005, she made Schaeuble her interior minister, his hair by then gray and thinning. He took over the finance minister’s job in 2009, just weeks after Greece set off the euro crisis by acknowledging that it had vastly understated its budget deficit.