Not everyone in Europe saw him as the ideal candidate. But in the competition to succeed Jean-Claude Trichet, whose term at the top of the European Central Bank ends in October, German Bundesbank head Axel Weber had powerful supporters. First and foremost, it was assumed, was Chancellor Angela Merkel. And many thought she would ultimately get her way.
Now, however, it looks as though Weber has other ideas. Several German media outlets reported on Wednesday that Weber is planning to step down from his position at the Bundesbank, Germany's central bank, and is no longer interested in taking over the top job at the ECB. It is a decision which leaves Merkel without a candidate for the euro zone's most powerful position -- with negotiations aimed at filling it set to get underway in earnest at the end of March.
The reasons for Weber's decision remain largely a matter of speculation, though several papers are reporting that he is interested in taking a job in the private sector, perhaps even at Deutsche Bank. Weber has not yet commented publicly on the reports, with German media reporting that he cancelled a statement planned for Wednesday afternoon at the behest of the chancellor.
The Bundesbank website added to the confusion by posting a note denying that there had been a statement planned on Weber's "professional future."
'Only One German'
Weber was hardly seen as a shoo-in for the top ECB position. Several countries in the euro zone had reservations, including France. And Weber did himself few favors with his public opposition to the ECB strategy of purchasing the government bonds of ailing euro-zone countries as a way to prop up the common currency. He was also an adamant opponent of reforms to the European Stability Pact and to plans for tighter coordination of economic policies across the EU.
Merkel, though, had been determined to push him through and had prepared the way last year by backing Vitor Constancio of Portugal for the position of ECB vice president. Having a southern European in the position of vice president would mean, according to EU conventions regarding geographical representation, that the position of president would likely be filled by a northern European.
Still, Weber's most prominent competitor for the position was seen as Italian central bank head Mario Draghi. Others in the running are Finnish central bank boss Erkki Liikanen as well as his Luxembourgian counterpart Yves Mersch.
Now the German chancellor, it would appear, is without a candidate. "There is only one German under consideration for the office of ECB president," the Süddeutsche Zeitung quotes an unnamed government source as saying. "And that is Axel Weber."
German papers on Thursday take a look at Weber's decision.
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"Wednesday was a disaster for Angela Merkel. For a long time, the chancellor did not want to take an official position when it came to the competition for the position of ECB president. She maneuvered so long that she has now lost her strongest trump card in the upcoming succession negotiations. The next ECB president will not likely come from Germany. Merkel did not demonstrate strength or negotiation finesse. Once again, she looked hesitant and is now left to react to events."
"The fact that Weber has now dropped out of the race means, however, that Merkel's plans for a European economic government have become more realistic. There is still opposition to the German idea in European capitals. But resistance would have been even more intense with a German at the head of the European Central Bank."
The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:
"There are few jobs in Europe that are as powerful as the top positions at the European Central Bank and at Deutsche Bank. Both of them now must be filled: Jean-Claude Trichet is leaving the ECB at the end of October and Josef Ackermann's contract at Deutsche Bank ends in May 2013. Who will succeed them remains to be seen, but one man had been discussed for both posts: Axel Weber, whose contract as head of the German central bank expires in April 2012."
"Weber, it would seem, is a superman. But he has one decisive shortcoming: He is a poor communicator, as became apparent once again on Wednesday. And for that reason, he is unlikely to get either one of the top jobs."
"Financial markets, political leaders, economic leaders and the general public have a right to a more sensitive handling of questions relating to the leadership of the Bundesbank and the European Central Bank. It is in everybody's interest that incumbents or candidates for those positions operate with the highest degree of dependability, predictability and transparency. Such qualities, however, were nowhere to be found on Wednesday."
Left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"In the euro crisis, there was one institution which almost single-handedly saved debt-ridden countries, and as such the euro itself, from collapse: the European Central Bank. Under the leadership of Frenchman Jean-Claude Trichet, the bank deviated from the dogma which held that the ECB was to concentrate exclusively on controlling inflation. Under Trichet's leadership, the ECB bought up bonds from overly indebted countries in order to keep their borrowing rates down and thus saved them from bankruptcy. One member of the ECB governing council was against the move: Axel Weber. ... (He) saw his chances of taking over the bank's presidency dwindle as a result."
"Attitudes in Europe also play a role. The rest of the European Union is fed up with the know-it-all Germans.... And now, the euro zone can search for an ECB president who will throw dogma overboard, which is in the interest of all euro-zone members."
The center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"One doesn't have to agree with Weber's personal decision ... but one has to respect it. It is, however, a question of character when it comes to how one communicates such a decision. It is extremely poor form when the German chancellor learns from the news agencies that her candidate for the position of ECB presidency is backing out...."
"As president of the Bundesbank ... Weber is in possession of delicate insider knowledge of any number of banks. Should he be interested in moving to the private sector, then several banks are likely to be concerned that their business secrets could be divulged. Weber would be a walking conflict of interests. Plenty of time would have to pass between his present and his future occupations. First and foremost, however, Weber must explain himself."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Angela Merkel, it would seem, has little luck when it comes to filling positions of leadership. First, she was embarrassed by former German President Horst Köhler when he suddenly resigned from his position without adequately informing Merkel of his decision. Then, she learns at the last moment that Bundesbank President Axel Weber, her most important ally in efforts to save the euro, is abandoning her. Köhler's resignation damaged confidence in the country's highest office, while Weber's announcement damages a position that is highly important in the euro crisis. In both cases, the chancellor comes out looking weak. Would such a thing have happened to former chancellors such as Helmut Schmidt or Helmut Kohl? Do people have a lack of respect for Merkel?"
"Axel Weber, for his part, must realize that morality precludes his chances at many attractive positions. A switch to Deutsche Bank, as has been speculated, is certainly out of the question. The man who has watched over Germany's financial institutions, who knows all of their tricks, taking a job with the sector's biggest player? Never."
"Weber would certainly earn a multi-million euro salary. But he would sacrifice his reputation and that of the financial sector. It is actually quite sad: the clever and knowledgeable professor can only return to the ivory tower -- or find a job abroad."
-- Charles Hawley
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