Germans Pass Bailout with Push by Greece Critic ; Finance Minister Proves Key to Passage, despite Antagonism with Athens

By Smale, Alison | International New York Times, August 20, 2015 | Go to article overview

Germans Pass Bailout with Push by Greece Critic ; Finance Minister Proves Key to Passage, despite Antagonism with Athens


Smale, Alison, International New York Times


The German chancellor and finance minister have worked well together in overcoming conservatives' skepticism about a further bailout deal for Greece.

When the German Parliament set aside its objections and voted on Wednesday to approve a bailout deal for Greece, the chief proponent was both an architect of the deal and one of those raising fundamental questions about it: Germany's finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble.

Mr. Schauble, who as much as anyone is the face of the austerity policies imposed by Germany on poorer European nations, had suggested just weeks ago that Greece might be better off going its own way rather than acceding to the bailout terms to remain in the euro.

Yet he had also helped, against long odds, to conclude that deal, which will unlock money necessary to allow Greece to stay current on its debts while imposing sweeping changes on its economy and finances.

Those tensions -- between his role as enforcer of the German values of frugality and order on the one hand and Germany's role holding Europe together on the other -- reflect the deep strains within Germany about how to maintain its own values while also taking on leadership of a fractious and sometimes hostile continent.

Like his boss, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr. Schauble has proved adept at navigating between those roles, simultaneously reassuring his fellow conservatives that he is guarding against giveaways to the Greeks while retaining credibility outside Germany as a proponent of European unity and integration.

Addressing Parliament on Wednesday as it considered the third bailout for Greece since 2010, he admitted to doubts but said that this time the government in Athens was serious about enacting economic reforms and that it was thus worth offering further assistance and proving that Europe could stick together.

"Of course, after the experience of the past months and years, there is no guarantee that everything will work, and doubts are always allowed," Mr. Schauble said. "But in view of the fact that the Greek Parliament has already passed a large part of the measures, it would be irresponsible not to use the opportunity now for a new start in Greece."

"For many, many reasons," he added, "we need a strong Europe, capable of action."

In those statements, Mr. Schauble laid out the fundamental dichotomy for himself, for Ms. Merkel and for today's Germany.

Political tension before the vote on Wednesday, in which conservative lawmakers staged a revolt against extending more credit for Greece, revealed the deep internal divisions being felt in Germany over its dual role.

In the end, 63 conservatives voted no, three abstained and 17 simply did not show up on Wednesday. In July, there were 60 naysayers and five abstentions -- one of the biggest blows to Ms. Merkel during her nearly 10 years in office.

But the measure ultimately passed by a substantial margin, 453 to 113.

Leading the way was Mr. Schauble, who at 72 is Parliament's longest-serving deputy and has held virtually every top post in Germany, save that of chancellor.

"A big chunk of the German public believes he has their concerns in mind, that when he conducts negotiations he works for Germany, so that it is not cheated on," said Harald Schoen, professor of politics at Mannheim University.

Ms. Merkel, who is nothing if not pragmatic, likely had all this in mind when she ceded the parliamentary leadership role to Mr. Schauble on Wednesday.

She may have wanted to avoid going down in history as the leader who expressly urged deputies to sign off on a package that could come back to haunt Germany and the rest of Europe. Or she may have been tacitly acknowledging that Mr. Schauble is even more popular than she is.

In any case, the 25-year-old dance between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schauble remains a complex political relationship, and interpreting it is one of Berlin's most popular parlor games. While some senior officials speak of a deep rift, another official familiar with both politicians insisted: "There is a deal. …

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