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Politics

Wolfgang Schäuble: the 'other chancellor'

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is continuing in his position under Angela Merkel's new coalition government. In a career spanning over four decades, he has made many friends as well as enemies.

According to a recent survey, nearly three-quarters of Germans are in favor of Wolfgang Schäuble continuing as finance minister. Chancellor Angela Merkel evidently agreed with this sentiment, since 71-year-old Schäuble has been a pillar of stability in her cabinet.

"I am now at an age and in a political position that give me a great deal of inner freedom," Schäuble recently told German public radio. "I don't need to become anything anymore, I don't need to prove much anymore."

It is clear to Schäuble that he is probably taking on his last active political role. In the past he strived for the German chancellorship and presidency, but did not manage to attain either position. He was long seen as the natural successor to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, but Kohl's defeat in 1998, and a financing scandal the following year that embroiled Kohl and his party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), dashed his hopes.

Instead of him, Angela Merkel climbed her way to the top of the party ladder, becoming German chancellor in 2005. Schäuble has always been outwardly loyal to Merkel, first as interior minister and then as finance minister. In the latter role, he played a key role in mitigating the eurozone crisis.

A passion for politics

Schäuble has said that after 41 years in politics he still has the energy to carry on. German news magazine Der Spiegel has playfully described him as "the other chancellor."

"I do this because I enjoy it and not because someone is forcing me," Schäuble is quoted as saying. "I am grateful for the opportunities I have. This is why the challenging position of finance minister gives me satisfaction - we finance ministers play a key role in Europe today, especially the German finance minister."

Angela Merkel seated next to Wolfgang Schäuble

Working closely together: Schäuble and Merkel

His main task will now be to secure funds for the projects initiated by the ruling CDU/CSU-SPD coalition. As finance minister, he has the right to veto the cabinet's decisions. He may reject any plans that put a disproportionately large strain on the federal budget. Tax increases are not on his agenda, even though many Germans have doubts about his intentions in that area. A recent survey showed that a majority of Germany's residents believe that taxes will need to be raised at some point to finance new welfare programs.

A cool facade

Schäuble is convinced that not everyone understands his "ironic" sense of humor - he can sometimes come across as gruff and forceful. He maintains a small circle of friends and, despite years of acquaintance, continues to address Angela Merkel in a formal manner. Nevertheless, he places importance on treating others with respect.

"Over the course of my long life I have learned that personal relationships and mutual respect can be separated from political rivalry," claimed Schäuble. "It's like a soccer match: when the two sides are playing against each other, they are rivals, but that doesn't mean they can't be friends. At least they don't need to be enemies."

When Schäuble publicly criticized his spokesman in 2010, he lost a lot of public sympathy. He then became seriously ill - a late effect of an assassination attempt 23 years ago that left him wheelchair-bound - and required hospital treatment. At this point many started doubting his ability to continue in office, but he managed to work his way back to normality and today he is in good health.

Faith in Europe

Schäuble is an ardent supporter of European unity - even a European state. "We need to strengthen our common institutions step by step," Schäuble told DW. "This is in our common interest, but it can only be done if the general population agrees with it. There is a lot of resistance among the people."

Wolfgang Schäuble on an official visit in Greece

Schäuble's austerity plans have been condemned by Greeks

He added that a crisis such as the current eurozone crisis further increases awareness of the need for European cooperation. "If we let go and fall, we lose even more. In other words, European unity is the best thing that Germany has achieved since the Second World War."

Unpopular measures

In southern Europe, however, Schäuble has become an unpopular figure due to his push for strict austerity measures in the debt-stricken countries. This has especially been the case in Greece, where the people see Schäuble as the cause of their country's financial woes, according to German politician of Greek descent Jorgo Chatzimarkakis.

However, Chatzimarkakis believes that Schäuble will adopt a more relaxed approach in the future. "I am quite sure that the finance minister will change his course," said Chatzimarkakis. "He has done this several times before."

According to him, the current austerity measures might soon be replaced with growth-boosting initiatives and more economic freedom in Greece.

Another four years of wrangling with the eurozone crisis and quarreling with countries like Greece, Cyprus and Spain are unlikely to be the high point of Schäuble's political career. He say that came a long time ago - during German reunification.

"I still think it was that time - 1989 and 1990 - when the Berlin Wall fell, and I had become minister for the interior six months earlier and negotiated the Unification Treaty," said Schäuble. "That was the greatest thing."

DW.DE