One wouldn’t think it possible to be less popular in the eyes of the Mediterraneans, the southern Europeans, the the IMF and Eurozone chiefs Christine Lagarde and Jeroen Dijsselbloem. Yet this is exactly what the German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble has managed to do, and he seems to relish it.
Confined to a wheelchair after an attempt on his life in 1990, Schäuble remains the toughest minister in Angela Merkel’s government and a personal enemy of the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. 74 years, elected in the Bundestag in 1972. Schäuble is a survivor. In all senses of the word, politically and physically. On 12 October 1990, aged 48, he was the target of an assassination attempt by a madman, who fired three shots at him during an election campaign event. The attack severely injured Schäuble’s spinal cord and face. He was left paralysed and has used a wheelchair ever since.
Shot in the back and paralysed, he is also used to be stabbed in the back by people close to him. During the Helmut Kohl era, when he was the chancellor’s most trusted associate, he protected and promoted the young Ossie (German from the former communist GDR) Angela Merkel. She systematically betrayed him, first in the year 2000, when he wanted to be chancellor, but got caught in Kohl’s (and CDU’s) “black money affair”. Then, in 2004, when he wanted to run for president of the country, but did not receive the party nomination because the CDU leader and political star Angela Merkel spoke out against him.
She nevertheless named him interior minister the following year, 2005. So tough was he as interior minister, that his decisions led to a campaign against him named Stasi 2.0 by its initiators, claiming intentional resemblance to the East German secret services, Staatssicherheit, the Stasi. Merkel then named him finance minister in 2009, a job he kept since.
He hates being helped with the wheelchair, but he knows how to take an involuntary joke, as when the IMF managing director Christine Lagarde assured everybody that she walks “hand in hand with Schäuble”. However, she is one of the few people allowed to push Schäuble’s wheelchair. He is also an undeterred francophile, although he said about France: “France would be happy if someone came to force their Parliament to push through the necessary reforms, but we know it’s hard, this is democracy.”
Disdain for democracy is, of course, what these words reveal. Wolfgang Schäuble is the perfect example of a German politician from the old generation, one of the most powerful members of the political elite in a country that saw its debt being reduced by more than half in the 1950s and that now refuses any concession to impoverished Greece.
Tough he is, indeed. He branded Varoufakis ‘foolishly naive’, so it was at least hypocritical from Schäuble’s part to feign indignation when he was depicted in the Greek press as a vampire, with the caption: “For five years now he has been sucking your blood.” A Greek newspaper even published a caricature that showed Schäuble in a Nazi army uniform, saying “we will make soap from your fat … we are prepared to discuss the fertiliser from your ashes.”
Schäuble showed his word sense of humour by offering Jack Lew, the US Treasury Secretary, a swap between Puerto Rico and Greece. Apparently, it was a joke, maybe playing on the title of a Houellebecq novel: “The possibility of an island”.
“I offered my friend Jack Lew these days that we could take Puerto Rico into the euro zone if the U.S. were willing to take Greece into the dollar union,” Schäuble said last week at an event in Frankfurt. Lew, the U.S. Treasury secretary, “thought that was a joke,” Schäuble said.
Puerto Rico is in the U.S. commonwealth and is currently struggling with a $72 billion debt that its governor says the island can’t repay.
However, such a fine sense of humour remains surprising from a man whose dissertation for the doctorate in law bore the title “The public accountant’s professional legal situation within accountancy firms”.