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BERLIN — Germany needs to start showing Central and Eastern Europe more respect, and stop all the lecturing and acting as if it were the Continent’s know-it-all.
The view from Budapest? Warsaw? Guess again.
“Why do Germans think they can teach Poles what democracy is?” Wolfgang Schäuble, the president of the German parliament, asks in his office overlooking the Bundestag’s giant lawn, before extolling the “courage and tenacity” of Central Europe’s people. “Think of Vaclav Havel!”
If it weren’t for the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, etc. “none of it would have been possible,” he added, jabbing his index finger into the air.
By “it,” Schäuble means not just the end of communism in Europe but also German reunification and the decades of peace and prosperity the region has enjoyed (notwithstanding a few bumps in the road) ever since.
So what about the rule of law being under threat in the here and now?
“It’s completely legitimate to have differences of opinion,” he said. “When I meet [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán, I tell him exactly what I think he’s doing wrong.”
In the end, it’s up to the European courts to decide where the boundaries are, even when it comes to Germany, he added.
At a time when much of Central Europe is on Europe’s naughty step for flouting democratic norms, attacking the LGBTQ+ community and generally undermining the progressive image the EU tries to project to the rest of the world, Schäuble’s agree-to-disagree vibe towards the East might strike some as a bit out of touch. Yet in his world, the growing East-West divide represents a greater danger to Europe’s future than anything happening in an individual member state.
“We need to change the attitude in Europe that everyone thinks he’s is something better and the others are not so great,” he said.
Anyone who remembers Schäuble as the bête noir of Greece and the eurozone’s other fiscal delinquents during the debt crisis that nearly sank the common currency a decade ago might ask if he is now playing the pot or the kettle. Back then, as German finance minister, he was vilified across southern Europe as the quintessential tight-fisted, arrogant kraut. He even served as the Greek far left’s poster boy in its successful 2015 referendum campaign to reject the terms of Greece’s bailout.
But then, as now, Schäuble’s actions were born of a noble impulse (at least in his own mind) — to protect and preserve Europe.
A deep sense of purpose
Whatever one thinks of Schäuble — and he has many critics both inside and outside Germany — few would dispute that the best way to describe him is duty-bound.
He has served uninterrupted as an MP since 1972, making him by far the longest-serving member of the Bundestag. Not even an assassin’s bullet — fired by a mentally ill man on the campaign trail in 1990 — managed to halt his career. Though he’s been in a wheelchair ever since, the attempt on his life appeared to only deepen his sense of purpose.
After the assassination attempt, Schäuble, who like many of his colleagues studied law, managed the reunification of West and East Germany, led various ministries and even served as leader of his party, the Christian Democrats (CDU). Many saw him as Helmut Kohl’s crown prince. But whatever dreams Schäuble had of becoming chancellor were shattered by a party financing scandal that forced him to step down as CDU leader in 2000. He was succeeded by an ambitious up-and-comer named Angela Merkel.
Despite repeated clashes with Merkel over everything from whether to usher Greece out of the euro to refugee policy, Schäuble has remained loyal.
That devotion hasn’t always been reciprocated. Merkel denied Schäuble his dream of becoming German president, repeatedly passing him over. Then, in 2017, she asked him to trade in his finance ministry job to become president of the Bundestag. Though the second-highest office in the land in terms of protocol (after the president), it’s a largely administrative role that involves acting as parliament’s chief referee.
Nonetheless, thanks to his stature, Schäuble has lent the office new prestige. He has also managed to curb the antics of the far-right Alternative for Germany, currently the largest opposition group in the Bundestag.
He has remained active in the CDU’s internal politics too. After failing to install his one-time protégé, Friedrich Merz, as party leader this year, Schäuble went to battle for the man who won — Armin Laschet — helping him secure the conservative bloc’s nomination for chancellor against a challenge from the leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party.
Even if Schäuble embodies the proverbial good soldier in deed, he doesn’t shy from telling the world how he really feels.
During the interview in his vast receiving room, decorated with the replica of a large eagle sculpture that once adorned the German Kaiser’s palace, he took aim at Europe’s migration policy, saying both the European Commission and member states had fallen short. Europe needs to be more flexible in its approach to the realities in individual member states, he argued, especially when it comes to rejecting certain ethnic or religious groups.
“If someone says, ‘in the tradition of our country it is difficult to explain to our population that we’re going to take in large numbers of Muslims, or people from Muslim countries,’ one should say, ‘Ok, then let’s talk about how else you can contribute,’” Schäuble said.
He also reiterated his concern over how member states planned to spend the money they receive from the EU’s pandemic recovery fund.
“If we use these €750 billion to plug holes in budgets instead of for investments in the future, then it won’t make any difference,” he warned.
Though often caricatured as the eurozone’s “Dr. No” during the debt crisis, Schäuble, unlike many in his party, never ruled out issuing common debt per se, but only for as long as there isn’t a common economic and fiscal policy along with adequate enforcement to ensure that countries don’t spend beyond their means.
“I support more Europe, but then we have to give Europe the necessary powers,” he said.
But given that such a Europe would require member states to relinquish their most potent remaining influence — the power of the purse — Schäuble’s dream scenario is unlikely to be realized anytime soon.
Even so, Schäuble expressed optimism about Europe’s future and welcomed the normalization of relations with the United States under President Joe Biden. He signaled support for a harder line against China than that voiced by either Merkel or Laschet.
“No one should try to rule the world,” he said, saying that China needed to stick to its international agreements. “America needs more European partnership and when the Americans are right, they’re right.”
Schäuble is bound to make his outspoken voice heard on China, Europe and a number of other issues in years to come. His name will once again top the ballot of his home constituency in southwest Germany in September’s general election.
Though more popular than ever in Germany, Schäuble was coy about whether he intended to remain president of the Bundestag, saying only: “I enjoy the work.”
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