Lonely Struggle Wolfgang Schäuble's Fight to Save Europe

Germany's Wolfgang Schäuble wants Europe to be his legacy. But his efforts to reform the EU and save the euro face many obstacles. One of them is his boss, Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Wolfgang Schäuble has been front and center on the German political stage for four decades.

Wolfgang Schäuble has been front and center on the German political stage for four decades.

Foto: JOHN THYS/ AFP

Bears, lynx and wolves roam wild in Estonia, a country about half the size of Ireland and with a population of less than 2 million. It isn't exactly the heart of the euro zone, and yet on a bright summer's day in 2013, it is playing the central role in a production by Wolfgang Schäuble. Germany's finance minister is trying to demonstrate that Europe is about more than just crisis, frustration and strife -- that joy and harmony are also part of the European equation.

To illustrate his point, he has invited two dozen musicians and singers from the Baltic country to perform at his ministry in Berlin. Their mission is to add spice to the drab everyday lives of politicians tasked with saving the euro, and they are achieving the desired outcome, at least when it comes to their host. Schäuble, swaying blissfully to the melancholy tunes performed by a girls' choir, talks about his love of Bach and Mendelssohn and cheerfully admits that he was "a feared violinist" in his youth. "Europe is about more than money and the economy," he tells his audience, "so stop complaining."

Schäuble Reborn

Germans are seeing a new side of Schäuble's personality these days. When he turned 70 a year ago, the papers described him as a "public servant," a "man of duty" and "Sisyphus," a political man of sorrows who never managed to become chancellor and who sacrificed his health for the public good.

Today, the minister is trying to dispel his established image as a tragic icon in a wheelchair through prolonged attacks of good cheer. He has been going to concerts, parties and receptions, talking to the weekly magazine Stern about relationships ("I don't kiss men"), and he has recently taken to starting his speeches with little jokes about his disability. "You'll have to stand," he tells his audience at a reception in Berlin's elegant Hotel Adlon. After a dramatic pause, he adds: "But I can remain seated."

Schäuble has been a member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, for more than 40 years. He negotiated the German unification treaty and pushed the euro through the parliament. He could, with a clear conscience, retire to his handicapped-accessible multigenerational house in the southwestern city of Offenburg and become the conservative version of Helmut Schmidt, the former Social Democratic chancellor turned elder statesman.

But Schäuble, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), wants to remain in his job. He wants to be finance minister again, assuming the outcome of the September national election goes his party's way. It isn't just because he would then have held top positions in the Bundestag and the government for longer than Hans-Dietrich Genscher, a Free Democratic Party (FDP) politician and former foreign minister, but also because he is deeply convinced that his contributions are critical to rescuing the Continent.

"Someone has to keep the store going," he says, and it's clear that by "the store," he doesn't just mean his budget or his party, but also the entire euro zone. And that someone, in his view, is Schäuble.

That's why Schäuble runs his ministry as if it were Germany's "European Ministry" with an attached budget division, and why he wants to help the quarrelling club of nations based in Brussels finally become a political union, a step that was skipped when the currency union was introduced.

But one question remains: Is Schäuble truly convinced that he and Chancellor Merkel are building the same Europe? And how can he be certain that he will be able to withstand the rigors of his job, especially after his experiences in the last legislative period?

The Right-Hand Man

Hans-Peter Repnik flashes his brightest smile as he opens the door of his little house on Lake Constance. The box trees in the front yard are neatly pruned, his wife has just made a fresh pot of coffee, and there are ham sandwiches on the dining room table.

Repnik was Schäuble's most important confidant for decades. He was the propaganda chief and the one to whip together majorities when his mentor headed the parliamentary group of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Repnik advised him in the dark hours of the CDU's political donations scandal in the 1990s, when Schäuble's involvement in illegal party financing led to the loss of his political influence and Angela Merkel's rise to prominence within the CDU. And Repnik was there when Schäuble, after being injured in an assassination attempt in October 1990, appeared in a wheelchair for the first time, took a spin around the table and said: "Look, Hans-Peter, it works."

Two years ago, Repnik was sitting beside Schäuble's hospital bed once again. The minister had been in a Berlin hospital for weeks after a surgical wound failed to heal properly, and he was contemplating stepping down. But then, says Repnik, Chancellor Merkel called and said: "Mr. Schäuble, I can't do without you."

Repnik and Schäuble talked for hours, about Europe, politics and life. Schäuble looked terrible. He had lost 10 kilograms (22 lbs.), and yet he was already bubbling with ideas again. When Repnik left the hospital late in the evening, he knew that the chancellor had made a deep impression on his friend. "It's good for Schäuble to feel needed," Repnik says.

Frenemies

Merkel and Schäuble probably have the most distant and most complicated relationship of any two politicians in Berlin. They meet for long talks every few months, at the chancellery or at Merkel's favorite Greek restaurant in the western part of Berlin. And yet they still address each other with unusual formality.

Both treat politics like a game of chess, full of surprise openings, tactical moves and rapid castlings. But now even insiders are never quite sure whether they are playing with or against each other at a given moment. The two politicians have a long history of mutual attacks as well as a deep respect for each other. "The most serious mistake you can make," the minister likes to tell his department heads, "is to underestimate Ms. Merkel."

At its core, their relationship is based on a mundane, businesslike arrangement. It guarantees him the most important ministerial post in the administration, and it lends a statesmanlike luster to her team of minions, such as Chancellery chief of staff Ronald Pofalla, CDU General Secretary Hermann Gröhe and Peter Hintze, a parliamentary state secretary in the economics ministry. Merkel protects Schäuble whenever the parliamentary group complains about his endless, mumbled lectures on the euro, and he defends her efforts to modernize social policy.

When a rebellion was brewing among party conservatives during the CDU dispute over gay marriage, it was Schäuble who brought his long-time underlings into line. "In the past, people who wanted to live differently from others were discriminated against. We don't want that anymore," he said before penning a long essay on the pros and cons of the "principle of values-based policy" in the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Cementing His Status in the Cabinet

Schäuble fills the intellectual vacuum that characterizes Merkel's CDU. But, in this way, he is also cementing his position as chief minister in the federal cabinet. He has always been convinced that he is vastly superior to his fellow cabinet ministers.

Unlike in the past, however, he no longer expresses his views with sharp arrogance, but with almost grandfatherly indulgence, especially toward female cabinet ministers. Schäuble sat next to Family Affairs Minister Kristina Schröder as she sugarcoated the results of a joint government study on family policy. And when Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen alienated the majority of the CDU-CSU parliamentary group in the dispute over female quotas, Schäuble warned her not to overstep the mark. He also urged her not to hit upon the idea of speaking in the Bundestag.

When needed, though, Schäuble can still be harsh and scathing. Only now, he is equally adept at playing the cabinet's amiable grandfather-like figure.

He and the labor minister recently took part in a panel discussion on the euro crisis, with a number of French students in the audience. Von der Leyen was practically glowing with ambition, determined to make a good impression, and gave one of her famous we-can-do-it-if-we-just-want-it-enough speeches. Schäuble, in contrast, dryly spelled out the key words of Germany's bailout policy, from "competitiveness" to "structural reforms." It was an appearance by a "seasoned crisis diplomat versus an agitated marketing chief," and yet the role-playing game conveyed a second, no less important message: Von der Leyen still has a shot at becoming chancellor one day, but it's too late for Schäuble.

It is part of the cold logic of power that politicians' importance doesn't just depend on what they are, but also on what they have the potential to become. Von der Leyen is not at the end of her career, whereas Schäuble, if only because of his age, is no longer a viable successor to Merkel. But this is also precisely what makes him so valuable to the chancellor.

At the same time, it also weakens his position in European policy, his pet subject. Schäuble believes that the currency crisis presents an opportunity for Europe's political union. He envisions this looking like the Atomium, the massive molecule-shaped structure in Brussels: A core group of countries consisting of Germany, France and other countries join together to form a new commonwealth with its own parliament and a democratically elected government, while the remaining nations form a group orbiting the core, each positioned at varying distances from it. This is what Schäuble had already envisioned in the 1990s, and he still wants it today.

As appealing as Schäuble's dream may be, the chances of it becoming reality seem slim.

Frustration and Hope

It's a Tuesday in May, a typical day in the life of the German finance minister during the crisis. It's still dark when his alarm clock goes off. At 6:30 a.m., he flies to Paris for talks with French President François Hollande and Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici. There is a working lunch, followed by interviews and conferences. In between meetings, Schäuble is whisked through Paris traffic by a police escort with sirens blaring.

It's late afternoon when Schäuble, in his wheelchair, is rolling back down the narrow aisle of his government jet. When asked whether his visit has advanced German-French relations, he replies with a protracted "pffft."

"Pffft" is a sound from Schäuble's extensive catalog of political sounds, which also includes an annoyed growl ("arrgn") and an indignant stammer. "Pffft" means that he doesn't have anything articulate to say about German-French relations at the moment, but that they have been better.

In truth, the situation is more desperate than that. France's ailing economy threatens to drag down the entire euro zone, the national budget is out of control, the government is shaken by party infighting, and hovering above it all is a president who campaigned against the necessary reforms and now has no idea how to control the chaos. More than anything, Hollande has a low opinion of Schäuble's Atomium model. In his view, Europe is a club of national leaders, and the best way to fulfill the will of the people is to ensure that the French get their way as much as possible.

In fact, it's a nightmare. But Schäuble wouldn't be Schäuble if he didn't put a positive spin on the whole thing. His Challenger jet is approaching the Rhine, a fateful river when it comes to Franco-German relations, when the finance minister adjusts his folding table and says: "The French know what they have to do. It's just that in France it's a little more difficult than elsewhere to win over voters."

For Schäuble, hope has always been part of the European principle. The only problem is that hardly anyone agrees with his position anymore. Most of his allies -- from Vitor Gaspar, until recently the Portuguese finance minister, and Schäuble's former French counterpart Christine Lagarde -- have left the Brussels stage. Likewise, even pro-European countries, such as the Netherlands, are distancing themselves from the EU. And Schäuble can't depend on support from the chancellor, either.

Disagreements with Merkel

Merkel favors more Europe as long as it benefits her. But as soon as she has any doubts, she tends to favor a little less Europe.

In the current legislative period, the chancellor and her finance minister have often found it difficult to find a common position, which is a far cry from the days of the Grand Coalition, when Merkel's conservatives were joined with the Social Democrats. "Merkel and (former SPD Finance Minister Peer) Steinbrück could agree in five minutes," says one insider. "Merkel and Schäuble can talk for an hour, and it still isn't clear what they've concluded."

Not surprisingly, they have a long list of conflicts. Schäuble wanted to establish a European monetary fund to manage bailout policy, but Merkel insisted on involving the International Monetary Fund (IMF). For a time, Schäuble wanted Greece to exit the euro zone, while Merkel preferred to have it stay put. Schäuble wanted to involve ordinary savers in the Cyprus bailout, but Merkel was opposed.

In fact, the two politicians' ideas have diverged so often that it has become a running joke at late-night meetings in Brussels for someone in the group to ask after the German delegate has spoken: "Now was that the position of the Chancellery or the Finance Ministry?"

Even the most knowledgeable observers of the Brussels scene are no longer quite sure who is advocating which position at any given time. Sometimes Merkel tries to thwart one of Schäuble's ideas in the European Council; but then the finance minister, in talks with his European counterparts, backpedals on commitments made by the chancellor. In the end, the two step in front of the cameras and explain, as if it were a matter of course, that they are in complete agreement.

So far, their conflicts have mainly affected mundane aspects of bailout policy, but now more fundamental issues are at stake. In a recent SPIEGEL interview, Merkel came out against almost everything that the finance minister considers important in his concept of a core Europe: the direct election of the European Commission president, new powers for the European Parliament and more authority for Brussels.

It was a bow to the euroskeptics in the CDU, an offer to Hollande and a renunciation of her finance minister. Merkel's message boiled down to telling Schäuble that he could forget about his idea of a core Europe. The chancellor intends to secure her party's blessing for her new course before next spring's European parliamentary election.

Loyalty Trumps Idealism

Merkel is no longer the champion of European unity she was a year ago. Instead, she is now primarily a therapist dealing with an insecure man in the Elysée Palace. A joint document Merkel recently drafted with Hollande focuses on establishing the position of Euro Group chairman as a full-time job, an idea Schäuble has consistently opposed.

For the finance minister, Merkel's about-turn is a bitter pill to swallow. He is one of the most popular politicians in Germany, his health is better than it's been in a long time, and yet his chancellor is in the process of wresting from him every issue that he had aimed to make part of his political legacy. Does he have to accept this, or should he hazard a rebellion? And most of all, if he does, how far can he go?

Schäuble's political creed is that he is fundamentally loyal, which, in his case means that loyalty to an individual is more important than loyalty to an issue. That was how it was under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, under whom he served near the end of Kohl's term, and that's how it is under Merkel.

Schäuble will use every tool of the practiced politician to fight for his Europe. He will make alliances, lay false trails and play off the rails -- but he'll come around in the end. Europe is important to him, but even more important is staying in the political game, continuing to be involved and playing a public role. He is the eternal second fiddle of German politics.

The Survivor

Schäuble is sitting in his wheelchair in a lecture hall at the elite Paris university Sciences Po. He is about to speak at a conference on youth unemployment, and he is surrounded by turmoil. Photographers are crowding around the stage and bodyguards are holding back audience members as high-profile investor Nicolas Berggruen pushes his way through the crowd. Berggruen, the host of the event, is trying to convince the Europeans that the best way to resolve their crisis is by applying Chinese governing principles.

Suddenly a side door opens and a procession of older men shuffles into the room as if magically drawn to Schäuble's wheelchair. One of the men is former European Commission President Jacques Delors, who, like Schäuble, was involved in the negotiations over German reunification some 23 years ago. Ottmar Issing, the former director of the German central bank, the Bundesbank, bends over Schäuble, with whom he once quarreled over the introduction of the euro. Former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, who was Schäuble's key ally after the resignation of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, shakes his hand.

It is a parade of former leaders, an honor guard of politicians who have stepped down or been voted out of office, drifting past like a who's who of his political life. Some are younger than Schäuble and were in office less than half as long. But now they are out of the political limelight, heading for the history books or obscurity, while Schäuble is still in the game, hunched over in his wheelchair, head resting on his hands.

Someone gives a signal and the crowd disperses. The audience sits down, and Schäuble is elevated onto the stage with a wheelchair platform lift. The audience members switch on their interpreting devices as Schäuble makes his way to the lectern.

He switches on the microphone, thereby establishing the power imbalance that is more important to Schäuble than almost anything else. It's his turn to speak, and everyone else has to listen. If it weren't that way, his life would be over.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan