July 20, 2024

Wolfgang Schaeuble, German elder statesman and finance minister during euro debt crisis, dies at 81

BERLIN — Wolfgang Schaeuble, who helped negotiate German reunification in 1990 and as finance minister was a central figure in the austerity-heavy effort to drag Europe out of its debt crisis more than two decades later, has died. He was 81.

Schaeuble died at home on Tuesday evening, his family told German news agency dpa on Wednesday.

Schaeuble became Chancellor Angela Merkel’s finance minister in October 2009, just before revelations about Greece’s ballooning budget deficit set off the crisis that engulfed the continent and threatened to destabilize world’s financial order.

A longtime supporter of greater European unity, he helped lead a yearslong effort that aimed for deeper integration and a stricter rulebook. But Germany drew criticism for its emphasis on austerity and a perceived lack of generosity.

After eight years as finance minister, the conservative Schaeuble cemented his status as an elder statesman by becoming the German parliament’s speaker — the last step in a long front-line political career that saw him overcome daunting setbacks. At the time of his death, he was the country’s longest-serving lawmaker.

He returned to work just weeks later and, the following year, was credited with helping sway Germany’s parliament to move the reunited nation’s capital from Bonn to Berlin.

Schaeuble “shaped our country for more than half a century: as a lawmaker, minister and parliament speaker,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “With him, Germany is losing a sharp thinker, a passionate politician and a combative democrat.”

From the early days of Europe’s debt crisis, Schaeuble pushed for tougher rules to keep government deficits under control. Berlin initially held out against bailing out Greece and other debt-laden countries, and critics charged that Germany’s reluctance to move increased the price tag.

Lead lender Germany stamped its mark on the rescue effort — insisting on tough conditions such as budget cuts in exchange for helping struggling countries and keeping them under pressure to comply. In 2012, Schaeuble insisted that European countries “are on the right track — in reducing their deficits, in improving their productivity and so their competitiveness.”

“That is the decisive thing, and we cannot spare any country this through supposed generosity or solidarity,” he said. “That is not obstinacy — it is understanding that democratic majorities only make unpleasant decisions when there is no easier alternative.”

When a left-wing Greek government under Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was elected in 2015 on pledges to scrap the painful spending cuts and tax hikes demanded by creditors, Schaeuble took a tough line. Later that year, he suggested that Greece could take a five-year “timeout” from the euro, but fell in line with Merkel’s insistence that a so-called “Grexit” was off the table.

Under pressure at home for reform of the wider financial system, Schaeuble pushed with mixed results for a levy on banks to ensure that they pay the costs of future crises, and for an international tax on transactions.

He drew criticism for an abrupt and unilateral German ban on some speculative trading practices, which unsettled markets, and was unapologetic.

“If you want to drain a swamp, you don’t necessarily ask the frogs if you want an objective verdict,” he said.

In Germany, Schaeuble took pride in balancing the budget for the first time in decades. Critics largely outside Germany that fiscal restraint held back the recovery of the currency union as a whole.

Schaeuble was born Sept. 18, 1942, in Freiburg. He worked as a tax official in his native southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg before winning election to the West German parliament in 1972.

He first joined West Germany’s Cabinet in 1984, serving as Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s chief of staff for five years before becoming interior minister.

In that job, Schaeuble was a key West German negotiator as the country headed toward reunification with the communist east after the Nov. 9, 1989, fall of the Berlin Wall.

He helped ready the treaty that created the legal framework for unification on Oct. 3, 1990.

Nine days after reunification, Schaeuble was shot while campaigning for the united country’s first election in Oppenau, in southwestern Germany.

An assailant with a history of mental problems fired a shot into Schaeuble’s spine that left him paralyzed. Another bullet hit his face, and Schaeuble had to undergo plastic surgery.

Schaeuble quickly returned to politics. In 1991, he delivered an impassioned plea to parliament for post-reunification Germany to return to its traditional capital, Berlin.

“Deciding for Berlin is a decision to overcome the division of Europe,” he said, before lawmakers voted narrowly to back the move.

From 1991 to 1998, Schaeuble served as parliamentary leader of Kohl’s conservative Christian Democratic Union. He finally became CDU leader after Kohl’s 16-year stint as chancellor ended in a 1998 election defeat.

However, in February 2000, after becoming implicated in a party financing scandal surrounding Kohl, he was replaced by Merkel.

Schaeuble was later touted as a candidate for Germany’s largely ceremonial presidency, but was passed over as Merkel chose former International Monetary Fund chief Horst Koehler.

He returned to the Cabinet when Merkel became chancellor in 2005 for his second stint as interior minister. He was an unexpected, but widely respected, choice as finance minister four years later.

Schaeuble is survived by his wife, Ingeborg, and four children.

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