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Worldbeater: Wolfgang Schäuble

European Union

Holding court: the German finance minister has big plans for Europe.

Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP/Press Association Images

Job: German Finance Minister.

Reputation: Ruthless architect of the European Union’s Ancien Regime

Think Metternich. Think Henry Kissinger. Think Dick Cheney.

Like those wielders of malevolent charm, Schäuble is the kind of ruthless intellectual schemer the imperial order counts on to ensure its continued survival. Not for them the niceties of democracy or the petty desires of ordinary folk for a better life; steering the ship of state to maintain the privileges and power of our ‘natural’ superiors is what it’s all about.

Wolfgang has been a master at practising this art for the Christian Democratic Party since the early 1960s, managing the accounts of capitalist calculation in such key ministries as Interior and Finance. He has now emerged as a kind of chief disciplinarian of democratic excess in Germany and throughout Europe.

Schäuble earned his spurs as Interior Minister with his no-nonsense approach to the human rights of German dissenters generally, and Muslim immigrants in particular.

He went on to dismantle ruthlessly East Germany’s public economy as part of the unification process, using an agency called Treuhand, whose heavy-handed approach took the blame for plunging East Germans into poverty. Today, Schäuble is setting up a similar fund in Greece to ensure debt obligations and encourage privatization. Angry Greek workers are likely to be even more recalcitrant than the East Germans were.

Schäuble’s considerable skills have been on recent display in the slap-down (for the moment successful) of the Greek anti-austerity movement’s attempts to squirm out of the perpetual recession that the infamous troika – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – imposed on the Greek economy.

This unelected and unaccountable triumvirate is more concerned with the ‘integrity’ of Greece’s obligations in the financial spider’s web of debt than the desire of Greeks (expressed in a landslide referendum) to get out from under the international loan sharks.

In this predictable melodrama, Schäuble plays the bad cop (allowing the IMF’s Christine Lagarde and German Chancellor Angela Merkel a modicum of civility) and stonewalls even the most modest suggestions of debt relief. His puritanical rhetoric of responsibility and obligation masks a disdain for the desires of mere mortals to put food on their tables. ‘The bankers must be paid’ is the first and last commandment. Aristocratic arrogance towards democracy exacts a terrible price.

Make no mistake: this is a coup to short-circuit democratic outcomes by Schäuble and his circle, and it is not going to stop with Greece.

The thing about reactionary heavyweights like Schäuble is that they are always many moves ahead in the great game of maintaining the status quo. His long-term plan is a rethinking of the European Union into a more centralized and autocratic form. Schäuble’s idea is an integrated central core (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France and Germany) involving bureaucratic control of economic rules with a minimal democratic parliamentary fig leaf.

The less prosperous and more unstable European periphery would then be policed by this imperial centre to guarantee that they do not stray from market discipline. A new European budgetary commissioner would be there to override any national budgets that endangered financial and corporate stability.

This streamlined vision of a technocratic Europe (buffered from populist pressure) led the irreverent then-Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis (who sat across the bargaining table from Schäuble) to refer to our éminence grise as the ‘intellectual force’ behind the European Union. But for many Europeans these days, the EU is little more than a German collection agency.

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