* Schaeuble sees Eurogroup as career-crowning job
* Appointment would anchor Germany more firmly in Europe
* Health issues in past, but new post would mean more work
By Noah Barkin and Annika Breidthardt
BERLIN, April 2 Two years ago Wolfgang
Schaeuble's 40-year career in German politics seemed at an end.
After repeated trips to hospital because of complications
from an operation, he told Chancellor Angela Merkel he felt
unable to continue as her finance minister. She encouraged him
to stay and now the 69-year old appears on the verge of a new
chapter in a career with more twists and turns than any other
post-war German politician.
Twenty-two years after he was shot and paralysed from the
waist down, Schaeuble is the leading contender to become
chairman of the Eurogroup, the influential policy-setting forum
of euro zone finance ministers. The appointment would give
Germany control over one of the most important European policy
jobs, formalising its transformation to unabashed leader of the
single currency bloc. Many people would see it as a sign of
growing German dominance over its economically weaker partners.
But conversations with more than half a dozen colleagues,
friends and relatives of Schaeuble suggest the move could
actually end up tempering Berlin's leverage.
Schaeuble, a trained lawyer who was born in the Black Forest
near the French border during World War Two, is frequently
referred to as the last true European in the German government.
He is a passionate defender of closer integration who has
nudged Merkel in that direction at a time when many Germans have
grown sceptical about the single currency project. As Eurogroup
chairman he would have more freedom to push that vision.
"I've known him since 1969 and from the beginning there was
always one theme above all that drove him, and that was Europe,"
said Hans-Peter Repnik, a longtime friend who met Schaeuble when
both were in the youth wing of the Christian Democrats (CDU).
"In the past it was difficult, even impossible to envision a
German in a role like this. But Schaeuble is unique because he
has managed to defend German interests while conveying to other
countries that it is Europe's future he is fighting for."
Few German politicians have been as influential as Schaeuble
over the past three decades.
The longest-serving member of the Bundestag lower house, he
led the negotiations on German reunification and is credited by
many with swaying the decision to move the capital to Berlin
from Bonn with a passionate 1991 speech in parliament.
His career has also been clouded by disappointment.
Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl publicly anointed Schaeuble
his successor in 1997, but then refused to make way for his
protege, later dragging him down in a campaign financing scandal
that vaulted Merkel into the CDU leadership.
His dream of becoming chancellor over, Schaeuble set his
sights on the German presidency, only for Merkel to quietly drop
her support for his candidacy in 2004.
His career at the very top of German politics seemed over
when Merkel unexpectedly brought him into her cabinet as
interior minister in 2005. Four years later his shift to the
finance ministry made the revival complete.
He became Germany's point-person for the European debt
crisis, before health issues flared up in 2010, forcing him into
hospital during an emergency summit meeting in Brussels and
raising questions once again about his political future.
But now Schaeuble is seen as the only viable candidate to
replace Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg prime minister who
has had the Eurogroup job for more than seven years and wants to
give up when his term ends in June. He has said he is exhausted.
Schaeuble has signaled in private that he is ready to take
the job if Juncker leaves, though Eurogroup members may not make
a final decision until after the French election in May.
Thomas Schaeuble said the health problems his older brother
experienced two years ago were a thing of the past.
"At the moment he is feeling better than ever," the younger
Schaeuble told Reuters. "He's become very disciplined. He
doesn't smoke any more, doesn't drink much and exercises, on a
hand-bike and of course regular gymnastics."
Some colleagues wonder whether Schaeuble could be taking on
too much with the Eurogroup post, which could add hours of work
each day to his schedule as finance minister.
"Schaeuble sees it as the big European job that would crown
his career," one senior German official who has worked with
Schaeuble said. "But he has no idea how much work the Eurogroup
NEGOTIATOR TO MEDIATOR
The official said Schaeuble would have to transform himself
from tough negotiator to mediator in the new post, leaving the
work of pushing Berlin's positions to his deputy Thomas Steffen.
A European official said Germany would find it more
difficult to press its views if Schaeuble were to get the post.
"That's why many are in favour of it," he said.
A third official, who worked with Schaeuble when he was
interior minister in Merkel's first term, pointed to his work
chairing meetings to boost dialogue between the government and
German Muslims as a model for how he would do the Eurogroup job.
"At the first meeting at the Charlottenburg Palace in 2006,
the debate got really heated, there was lots of tension," that
official said. "Schaeuble said little himself, he let the others
speak. But at the end he took control, summed up the different
positions and it was clear to everyone that he had listened and
"He has a great feel for the small guy, he's very attuned to
their problems. He's not a dogmatic German."
Both as interior and finance minister, Schaeuble has always
made a point of attending European meetings that his
predecessors often did their best to avoid, or leave early.
At the last meeting of European finance ministers in
Brussels for example, attendees say he insisted on staying until
the bitter end of a discussion on Hungary, when counterparts had
left for the airport, leaving ambassadors to negotiate instead.
In private, he has bemoaned efforts by European leaders to
bypass the Eurogroup and take control of the policy process
themselves, telling colleagues that they only mess things up.
If he gets the post, some expect him to try to restore the
primacy of the finance ministers in policy matters.
"Many of the central policy decisions are taken at the
Eurogroup. It is a pretty powerful position," said Guntram
Wolff, deputy director of the Bruegel think tank in Brussels.
"It would be a good signal to have someone from Germany at
the heart of European decision making. It would anchor Germany
in Europe, really bring it all together."