Wolfgang Schaeuble – Jacques Delors: two variants of “Europe”

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis


Jacques Delors (at 98) and Wolfgang Schaeuble (at 82) departed our vain human existence on the very same day – just as 2023 was waning.

Both were hailed as “standard-bearers of the European idea” as it has morphed into the economic-political construct of the 20th century as it ended and the beginnings of the 21nd. Such statements of an eulogy kind are factually correct; they provided moreover today’s political figures with a convenient way out from the task of honouring personalities who have marked our times, now that memory starts to fade. But a glitch on the shining image thus depicted is the different reading of what “Europe” really is.

POLITICO, somehow grandly, declared “end of an era” and listed “three things [these] EU behemoths had in common”: both were passionately committed to European integration; both missed their chance at the top job on their home turf; both suffered personal tragedy. POLITICO also listed “three things that divided them”: smooth talker (Delors) vs. tough-talker (Schaeuble); position on the euro (Delors masterminded the single currency, Schaeuble “almost presided over its dissolution toying with the idea of expelling Greece”); perceived vs. actual power in the EU (Delors was President “of the EU’s executive arm with a mandate”, Schaeuble used his position as German finance minister “to exert an outsized influence on European fiscal and economic policy”.

Wise and close to the seat of things European POLITICO may be, but we beg to dissent: Schaeuble and Delors were differing, or rather opposite, proponents of two radically variants of “Europe”. Their relationship with Greece highlights this point.

Delors strived to enhance the dimension of cohesiveness in the European project: even before Cohesion Policy was coined as a term (and shaped with a financial and operational content); he took up the cause of economic/real convergence between EU members. Realising that the creation and deepening of the Single Market would effectively ramp up inequalities, he pushed for EU’s Structural Funds to be increased and for an integrated approach to be introduced – some time before talk of “cohesion” came in style. True enough, France would be a beneficiary of such an approach (and of such largesse), but Delors took in earnest the special needs of a country like Greece.

All the more so, once Greece effected – under Costas Simitis, at the helm of the economy in the second Andreas Papandreou term – a sharp turn towards fiscal discipline, a turn closely modeled on Delors’ own trail when he had to salvage the French economy from the derailment of the first Mitterrand Socialist-hue term…

Schaeuble, on the other hand, having lost out to Angela Merkel the chance to be even Kanzlerkandidat after the Helmut Kohl years (due to a rather sordid financial scandal he had to take the fall for), became a self-appointed apostle of fiscal austerity. To him austerity was an Ordo-liberal instrument to model the whole euro area after the Bundesbank paradigm, the “schwarze Null”/“black-zero” principle for budgetary policy etc. His reading of the unwavering, rules-based running of fiscal Europe contained the reverse of what came to be known as the “whatever it takes” ECB dogma under Mario Draghi, to save the euro; Schaeuble’s own credo amounted to “whatever the cost” for euro-area laggards. Hence his readiness to propose to Greece a 10-year (or 5-year) timeout from the euro (assorted with aid to sugar-coat the ensuing shock), as well as his tough-love approach to the enforcement adjustment measures with little regard to their social cost. Schaeuble’s Europe would be welcoming, indeed –  to those ready and willing to conform fully with his concept.

Now, some ten years later, it can be said that Wolfgang Schaeuble clearly won the political arm-twisting; but the relaxation of EU fiscal rules and watering-down of the Stability Pact less than a week before his passing way points rather to a slightly more social-and-cohesion-minded  “Europe” – like that one that Jacques Delors would rather have.