As the Greek debt crisis deepens by the day, one word stands out in the headlines – ‘endgame’. It conjures up an image of a vast chessboard stretching from Brussels (or Frankfurt) on one side to Athens on the other.
But for the game that really matters one must go to Berlin. It has two German players – a politically astute, election-winning premier versus a gruff, austere finance minister. It’s a scenario that British observers will be familiar with – and indeed the parallels between the Blair-Brown relationship and that of Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble are striking.
The latter is explored in an illuminating piece for Spiegel Online by Peter Müller, René Pfister and Christian Reiermann:
“Although she’s the one in charge, he intermittently makes it clear that he remains his own man; that he doesn’t kowtow to anyone. Appointed finance minister in 2009, Schäuble remarked that Merkel likes to surround herself with people who were uncomplicated, but that he himself was not uncomplicated. He tends to be a little derisory about Merkel, admiring her hunger for power but deeming her too hesitant when the chips are down.”
That sounds a lot like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown before things got really bad.
The parallels aren’t exact, of course. Whatever the tensions between the two Germans, their relationship lacks the poison that killed New Labour. It helps that Schäuble, once the senior partner, appears not to resent Merkel for her dominance of a party in which he, not she, is the insider.
However, despite their track record of cooperation, they now find themselves at odds over the most important issue facing Germany – and indeed the entire Eurozone:
“Merkel would like Greece to remain in the euro. Not necessarily at any cost, but she’s prepared to pay a high price. Schäuble is not. He is of the opinion that a Greek withdrawal from the euro zone is in Europe’s best interests. Which of them is the more intransigent? Merkel, whose popularity serves as the backbone of the EU? Or Schäuble, for whom there is considerable good will among members of parliament, fed up as they are with having to approve one bailout package after another?”
If you recall, Blair and Brown had their own disagreements over the single currency, but perhaps a better comparison would have been if Brown had decided to oppose Blair on Iraq. He didn’t, of course, but it was the legacy of the war which allowed him to force Blair out.
Though not obviously intent on a coup, Schäuble is in the same position that Brown was – in that it is he who commands the trust of his party:
“If he wanted to, Schäuble could easily drum up support for a rebellion against Merkel. In February, when the Bundestag voted to extend financial aid to Greece, over 100 members of parliament stressed it was for the last time – and only voted in favor of the extension because Schäuble had made his position on Greece clear. Were he to give it the thumbs down, Merkel will have a tough time persuading her party otherwise.”
Unlike Gordon Brown a decade ago, the 72-year-old German finance minister is not a leader in waiting. Though the Spiegel authors describe him as an “éminence grise”, it is Angela Merkel, Queen of Europe, who will have to give the order when Germany finally runs out of patience.
The authors mention a meeting in which Schäuble gave the Greek finance minister a bag of chocolate euros. How long before the Greeks get their chocolate in the form of food parcels instead?