Profile: Wolfgang Schäuble
Michael Noonan must be in full battle mode when he meets the wily old fox of German politics - straight talking finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. Eoin Hahessy profiles his career.
Tough, driven, determined. Three adjectives that describe a man whose life and career has spanned some of the key moments in world history and who is playing a dominant role in the debate on Europe’s economic crisis. Sixty-eight-year-old Wolfgang Schäuble is the oldest man in Germany’s cabinet, the longest serving parliamentary member, and its current finance minister.
Born in the middle of World War II in 1942, Schäuble grew up in the city of Freiberg in the Black Forest in South West Germany. He comes from solid Protestant stock, the son of a tax finance advisor. The cautious 1950s were his formative years rather than the hedonistic 1960s, a period he is remarked to have disliked and regarded with suspicion. Schäuble studied law and economics and in 1970 became a fully qualified lawyer just like his two brothers. He would join the tax administration of his local state of Baden-Württemberg, eventually becoming a senior tax official in the Freiberg office.
It was during his studies that his political interest was unleashed and a remarkable career in politics was born. A conservative by conviction, in 1961 he joined ‘Junge Union’, the youth division of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and served, as the chairman of the Association of Christian Democrat Students. Eventually in 1965 he became a fully-fledged member of the CDU. In 1972 he was elected to the Bundestag and served as the whip in the CDU/CSU (Christian Social Union) coalition between 1981 and 1984. In 1984 his political career began its assent when Helmut Kohl appointed him minister for special tasks and head of the chancellery. In this role he was placed in charge of the first state visit in 1987 of Erich Honeker, chairman of the state council of the Soviet Union’s laboured creation, the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Such experience served him well when his close ally Kohl appointed him to the position of minister of interior in 1989. He gained a reputation as being tough on law and order during this time. But it was his actions in a historic period of Germany’s scarred history that would define him.
The Berlin Wall that had cut through the psyche of a German nation for 28 years had crumbled and Schäuble had the mammoth task of leading the negotiations in the reunification of his country. A strong nationalist and a convinced pro-European, he would deliver the decisive speech in the Bundestag in 1991 that would persuade the majority to move the capital back to Berlin from Bonn. “A decision for Berlin is also a decision to overcome the division of Europe,” he had declared, to applause from members of every political party, according to the official parliamentary record.
Such conviction and leadership was delivered a year after Schäuble had to overcome a grave personal challenge. In 1990 he was shot by a mentally disturbed would-be assassin. The attempt on his life would leave him a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life facing a constant battle as his health would deteriorate over the years to follow. Throughout the 1990s Schäuble would remain one of Germany’s most popular politicians. Constant speculation ensued that he would replace Kohl, who had been losing more and more popularity as chancellor. The alliance between Kohl and Schäuble had always been a curious one. Kohl was the consummate politician, often mistrustful; Schäuble was the lonesome cerebral tactician with an intense loyalty to Kohl. Kohl stated that Schäuble was his natural successor but it would be Schäuble’s deep loyalty to Kohl that impeded him from taking the highest position in Germany political office, a position Schäuble had always desired.
Within months of having become leader of the CDU after Kohl lost the 1998 election, Schäuble became embroiled in a scandal over the former chancellor’s habit of accepting undeclared political donations. Daily revelations about money trails, secret bank accounts, and an arms dealer shook German political life as Kohl admitted to having unreported political donations in the region of $1.2 million. Attention fastened on Schäuble and his knowledge of Kohl’s cloak and dagger activities. During a TV interview in 2000 Schäuble admitted taking $52,000 from Karlheinz Schreiber, an arms dealer who was fighting extradition from Germany to Canada. Schäuble insisted that he had broken no rules and had turned the money over the CDU’s party treasurer, but the controversy would taint him and lead to his first major political setback. Schäuble became easily portrayed as part of the ‘Kohl system’, a well-oiled machine dispensing patronage in return for loyalty. Using the all-consuming controversy, the woman Schäuble had made secretary general of the party, Angela Merkel, would execute a political coup against both him and Kohl to assume the reins of power of the CDU party.
Yet Schäuble’s popularity remained high amongst the German people. He was a leading candidate for mayor of Berlin in 2001 but was rejected by his own party.
In 2004 his name featured prominently for the position of president of Germany, receiving wide support from varied quarters, but his old nemesis Merkel dashed any hopes he had of obtaining this position by stating that questions still lingered over his involvement in political donations scandal.
But in 2005 Merkel would restore Schäuble to ringside politics when she appointed him to his previous position of minister for interior in her grand coalition in 2005. His period here was marked with alarmist sentences and some of the laws he put together, such as the one allowing clandestine monitoring of criminals’ computers, proved controversial. But the sense that Schäuble was a man imbued with the public good remained and his plain talking, no-nonsense style ensured his strong political affection in the hearts of many Germans.
His relationship with Chancellor Merkel is complex and has been remarked as being akin to ‘armed peace’. Twice the thwarter of his political ambitions Merkel, a savvy politician, knew Schäuble’s experience and combative style would prove beneficial when she appointed him to the position of minister for finance in 2009. Schäuble is the grand old man of the Christian Democratic movement, and he is probably the only person in Merkel's cabinet who can negotiate on a par with the powerful CDU state governors.
Indeed Merkel was handing Schäuble the proverbial poisoned chalice, as he took a portfolio facing a deep financial crisis.
Befitting his reputation, Schäuble is rumoured to have eagerly wanted this position.
In the past, he was considered one of the great failures in German politics. The office of finance minister is his last chance to end his political career on a dignified note and he has clenched this new role with both hands.
Schäuble can be seen as coming from the school of ‘Old Europe’. While Merkel lectures Europe as to its ills, Schäuble is a thoroughly committed European believing member states too ready to use the EU as a scapegoat for their own vices. He is believed to be the one who talked Merkel down from her hard-line on the indebted euro zone nations, paving the way for rescues such as the one Ireland received and the one recently announced for Portugal.
He has been strident in defence of the euro during the most challenging period in its short history. In 2010 the Financial Times labelled him as Europe’s leading financial minister for his stance on this issue, his swift action in scaling back emergency measures once the economic recovery took hold and his successful role at the tiller of a vibrant German economy.
Schäuble is the wily old fox of German politics that has earned his straight talking reputation through such proclamations as declaring American economic policy as ‘clueless’.
He will adopt the same approach with Ireland and is currently playing hardball with our Finance Minister, Michael Noonan. Schäuble is of the firm opinion that our tax system is untenable and is resolute that Ireland must provide a concession to its euro zone sponsors if they are to cut the interest rate on Ireland’s bailout. Ireland is about to find out how tough, driven and determined he really is.