Wolfgang Schäuble is one of the most influential German politicians never to have been chancellor. The challenges that he will face as president of Germany's parliament include the far-right AfD.
Wolfgang Schäuble's election on Tuesday as president of the Bundestag was widely expected after Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats nominated him as their candidate for the post.
Over the intervening weeks, it became clear that politicians of other stripes were also hoping that his 75 years, 44 of them as a member of Germany's parliament, would bring some necessary authority to the role of parliamentary session referee. After all, with a lower house that now includes the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), the debates promise to be somewhat more rambunctious. Indeed, both the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the neo-liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) have already signaled their support for his nomination.
The move marks the end of the abrasive veteran's eight-year reign at the Finance Ministry and the beginning of surely the last chapter of one of the most impressive and era-defining careers in German politics — one that included party donations scandals, four ministerial posts and an assassination attempt that has left him in a wheelchair since 1990.
'Hero of German politics'
Schäuble made farewell tour stops at the annual summit of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in Washington, where he did not shy away from warning the host country against sliding into protectionism .
Also in Washington was the man many tip as Schäuble's successor: Werner Hoyer, 65, president of the European Investment Bank, and, more crucially for the coalition talks, a member of the FDP and an early supporter of its young leader Christian Lindner.
At the summit, Hoyer was effusive about the man he might replace (though suitably modest about his own ambitions): "I hope the heads of the new coalition in Berlin find someone who has the courage to follow Mr Schäuble, who has been a hero of German politics in the last 40 years, who will continue to be that in his new position, and who has stamped his seal on Europe's budgetary stability in the past eight years."
But the veteran CDU man, who has been showered with national honors and honorary doctorates throughout his career – everything from the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 1986 to the Kissinger Prize in 2017 – is not without a murkier side. In 1997, Schäuble's career trajectory seemed set when Helmut Kohl anointed him as his preferred successor, only for the CDU's party donation scandal to trip him up. In 2000, Schäuble admitted to having accepted a six-figure donation for the CDU from arms dealer and convicted tax-evader Karlheinz Schreiber – something he had previously kept hidden.
Still, as political analyst Josef Janning of the European Council on Foreign Relations points out, the rehabilitated Schäuble's authority in government is beyond doubt. "It will emerge over time what a distinctive influence he had over German politics," he predicted.
The last European standing
For Janning, this reputation comes down to one chief factor: Schäuble's commitment to the European Union as a visionary project, rather than just a convenient economic alliance. "He's the last in the generation of politicians for whom Europe was not just another bargaining place. It was a piece of the raison d'etre of German statehood," he said. "Much more than the chancellor, he was someone who would lie awake at night over Europe. Where Merkel is a pragmatist, Schäuble would say: we have to think in longer terms."
Wolfgang Schäuble (seen here in 1998) was once tipped to become Helmut Kohl's successor
Many other European leaders, chief among them the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, took exception to Schäuble's commitment to the EU when it came at the cost of imposing massive austerity on the bloc's weaker economies. The French Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg described Schäuble in 2014 as a "hawk of inflation" – criticism that eventually cost the Frenchman his job.
Given the job that he is about to take on, another notable hallmark of Schäuble's hardline handling of the Euro crisis was his rejection of the parliament's calls for more say in the Euro bailout measures. "Schäuble is very much an executive person," said Janning. "He does not share the concern about parliament's lack of power."
Schäuble has seen it all
But he will no doubt bring many other qualities to the chamber. For one thing, Schäuble is no stranger to provocative voices in the Bundestag. "He has seen everything," added Janning. "He has seen the Greens arrive in parliament [in the 1980s], and he has seen how they were isolated and stigmatized in the beginning. I think that his responsibility is to show that this democracy has matured to a degree that it can live with fringe positions."
Of course, Schäuble's obsession with balancing the budget, with reducing government spending while refusing to lower taxes, was also felt domestically. "Schäuble was convinced that the CDU's claim that they could be the ones to get the budget situation under control had to be delivered in order to remain credible," said Janning. "And this is something that resonates with many in his own party."
This was achieved in 2014, when he became the first German finance minister since 1969 to deliver a balanced budget, something that, as far as Janning is concerned, was only possible because of the minister's natural authority in the cabinet: "His party succeeded in balancing the budget because it was so difficult to argue against Schäuble. That will become more complicated now – without him, the spending arguments will be longer."