Germany’s finance minister: The most dangerous man in Europe?

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BERLIN - German Chancellor Angela Merkel's face usually displays a rather friendly, almost benign expression. She displayed a very hard visage recently, however, when she said Cyprus was "exhausting the patience of its euro partners."

Yes, Angela is losing "patience" with irresponsible lands and leaders to the South, reluctant to bear the required share of their burdens.

According to Angela and the people behind her they should be much more willing to slash wages and government salaries, to amputate pension rights, to let prices on staples rise, to watch joblessness soar while they cut the means of helping those afflicted, and to privatize key elements of the economy, selling them off to the best or most-favored bidders.

Health care, childcare and education must be cut if an economy is to be "rescued" within the "framework of the euro." Austerity is Merkel's magic code word for economic revival in Germany but even more so in the southern European countries.

To those southern nations at the receiving end this "cure," however, is often worse than the supposed peril it purports to avoid. That is why furious people from Lisbon in Europe's far west to Nicosia in easternmost Cyprus, including Rome, Athens, and even some in northern Dublin, are painting nasty comments about Germany on posters or even scribbling ugly Hitler mustaches over Angela's face.

A Cypriot banking official recalls a meeting in Brussels in 2011 when Merkel, French President Sarkozy, International Monetary Fund boss Christine Lagarde and right-wing European Union leaders Juncker and Barroso made decisions on Greece and even more helpless Cyprus which determined developments up to the present.

As the International Herald Tribune put it:" In the three years since Europe's rolling debt crisis first exploded in Greece, governments and citizens in the hardest-hit countries have fumed that decisions taken in Brussels paid little heed to their interests and were dictated instead by the economic concerns and election cycles of Germany."

Speaking of such treatment, above all by Germany, one Cypriot expert grumbled: "It was very brutal - like warfare."

Giant demonstrations prevented the original plan of taxing everyone's bank account, even the poorest, to pay off bankers' debts. But the modified plan, though less extreme, is expected to cut Cypriot living standards for years. Fear and anger is on the increase.

True, Euros make life easier for people traveling in much of Europe; no currency exchange, no figuring, mentally or electronically, what that meal or pair of shoes cost in one's own money. But by preventing each country from altering exchange rates to fit its own situation, the euro forces them, weak or strong, into one baking mold, its shape a very Germanic strudel.

The stable euro is good for big exporters like Germany, not for the others. And not for every German either. Whether it's VW cars, tanks or Bayer chemicals, developing exports that undercut competitors in price requires keeping down wages and benefits at home. While the German jobless average is low at 5.4 percent, three million are still jobless, and a large number of "employed" are in uncertain, temporary jobs, often "lent out" by private agencies whose business it is to cheat them, or working at wages so low they must still apply for state assistance to survive. Aside from those private agencies, another institution is doing a tragically brisk business: the network of food pantries for the poor usually filled to capacity - with hungry people. Regular, steady jobs at decent pay are getting harder and harder to find.

Easy to find tough guy

Not at all hard to find in TV newscasts, however, is the man in the wheelchair, Wolfgang Schäuble (pronounced Shoy-bleh). A tough character, who survived an insane murder attempt in 1990 that left him paralyzed from the waist down, he almost holds the longevity record in German politics and has had a wide variety of key right-wing jobs.

As Minister of Finance since 2009 and Merkel's shadow in international negotiations, he has been called "the most dangerous man in Europe." He is a main shaker and maker of merciless agreements deciding the fates of Greece, Cyprus or any country in trouble. Many blame his policies for the disasters in both countries.

When Schäuble stated that the Cyprus agreement he helped push through might be a "business model" for other countries, even placid Foreign Minister Asselborn of stable little Luxembourg took umbrage: "I have the greatest difficulty stomaching that term 'business model'", he said; he wanted no-one to instruct him as to what he should do, and least of all German Finance Minister Schäuble.

Within Germany, Schäuble's efforts are directed at balancing the budget, come what may. To achieve this he wants to cut 3.5 billion euros from the health fund, 1.5 billion more than originally planned. "Consistent, long-term economizing and growth do not exclude one another," he said, adding: "That is a strong signal for Europe." (Rather like rep. Ryan in the U.S.!)

His main aim, according to an interview in the New York Times in November, 2011, is a political union in Europe, and with this intent "he views the unrest in the markets 'not as a hindrance but as a necessity'." - "We can only achieve a political union if we have a crisis."

Two things in Schäuble's past are worth recalling. In 1999-2000 he was caught up in a giant scandal about large sums donated secretly (and illegally) to his party, the Christian Democratic Union, by a powerful, very crooked arms dealer.

No sewage dump could equal the cubic meters of dreck that were unearthed; as a result Helmut Kohl, totally compromised, had to give up the party chairmanship. Schäuble took over but soon also had to quit and make way for a still-untarnished woman from the "East," young Angela Merkel. Schäuble was never tried or punished for all the bribery, perjury and libel involved. Today, since Merkel need fear no rivalry from him (he is already 71) they are, at least outwardly, a team.

Schäuble's star also shone ten years earlier - or was it less a star than an all-devouring "black hole"? In 1990 it was he who negotiated the incorporation of the German Democratic Republic, the GDR, into the West German state and, with the aid of corrupt eastern accomplices, made certain that every trace of nationalized industry, every remnant of the once so generous social system, also the entire media, academia, administration, judicial system, yes, anything and everything with the least whiff of socialism was sucked up and eliminated.

There were nearly ten million GDR jobs in 1989; four years later only a little over six million remained. Schäuble's formula for the GDR has been modified for European Union neighbors.

True, none of them can be suspected of being socialist in any way. But they had better not even dream of moving in that direction! That, in my view, is this organization's basic function, with sharp-eyed teams like Merkel-Schäuble in the watchtowers. Portugal, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Italy - and any others: There's to be no dancing out of line!

Photo: Germany's finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble is being called "the most dangerous man in Europe."   European University Institute/AP

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