Ever the optimist

Handelsblatt Deutschland Dinner mit Dr. Wolfgang Schäuble am 15.8.2017 in der Bolle Meierei in Berlin
On the sunny side of the street: Wolfgang Schäuble. Source: Niels Bröer for Handelsblatt

Wolfgang Schäuble admits he has a reputation as “Europe’s stubborn dog.” Yet, despite a political landscape strewn with crises the German finance minister proved he is a perennial optimist, talking up the outlook for the democratic process in the United States while playing down the fall-out from Brexit.

Speaking at a business dinner hosted by Handelsblatt Tuesday night, Mr. Schäuble said he was glad the division of power in the US still works, thanks to its system of checks and balances. Even someone “with the incredible power of the American president cannot do what he likes,” the minister said.

The US president remains dependent, for instance, on Congress and the judicial branch, and has to take that into account, Mr. Schäuble noted. Donald Trump could “talk lots of stuff” but the political resistance to his actions in the US is growing, even among the Republicans, he added.

Mr. Schäuble condemned US policy under the Trump administration as “terrible” and left no doubt that he considers Mr. Trump’s “America first” approach to be wrong. Still, he admitted European criticism on Mr. Trump has had little effect. “He does not care much about us,” added Mr. Schäuble.

On the other hand, the finance minister – a convinced trans-Atlanticist – emphasized how dependent Europe is on the US. Many international crises, such as the nuclear threat from North Korea, can be solved only with US help, he observed.

“We should not make things more difficult for the British than they already are.”

Wolfgang Schäuble, German finance minister

Mr. Schäuble also expressed optimism over a crisis closer to home. So far, Brexit has not had the effect of weakening, but rather strengthening cohesion in Europe, Mr. Schäuble said. “Since the Brexit decision there has been a mood change in parts of Europe – in the Austrian presidential elections, in France and the Netherlands.” This was a “cause for optimism,” the finance minister said.

His comments come as Britain eased back on its own timetable for Brexit, suggesting it would be open to a transition period of two years after it leaves the European Union in March 2019. Chancellor Angela Merkel meanwhile vowed to protect German fishermen in Britain’s negotiations to leave the EU. On the campaign trail a month before the German national elections, Ms. Merkel was speaking to supporters of her conservative CDU party in the port city of Cuxhaven.

Read a transcript of Wolfgang Schäuble’s dinner interview with Handelsblatt publisher Gabor Steingart on Brexit and Donald Trump below.

Handelsblatt: We are entering another major European construction site when we talk about the negotiations with Britain over its withdrawal from the European Union. Will there even be a Brexit in the end?

We have to take the British decision seriously. A government or a parliament cannot simply ignore a referendum. The British government has now decided that it needs a transition period, and that we have to find interim solutions.

So there will be a soft Brexit?

Well, at least we have every interest in making sure that a decision we think is wrong causes as little damage as possible to Great Britain and Europe.

So Europe has to give a helping hand to the weakened government in London?


What would that helping hand have to look like?

If the British government is now talking about an interim arrangement, Brussels should not discard it. We should not make things more difficult for the British than they already are.

…especially since Brexit, contrary to what was feared in Brussels, has led to a tendency toward breakup in the EU.

In keeping with Hegelian dialectic, the fact that strong movements often lead to countermovement, the Brexit did not lay the foundation for the rise of Marine Le Pen in France but, on the contrary, the election victory of Emmanuel Macron.


Times of transition can also mean a period of political and social eruption. What is your response to the new US president and his “America first” slogan?

The majority of the world has responded relatively reasonably by saying that we don’t think this is right. We Germans also tried to say this, with as little provocation as possible.

Did Trump understand it?

I don’t know. He doesn’t care that much about us. But it’s clear that America is still the largest nation today, politically and economically, and therefore completely indispensable. Europe is not solving the problem with North Korea’s nuclear weapons. This is a situation that’s beginning to make me lose sleep at night.

So is Trump solving the problem?

It certainly won’t happen without the United States.

Is there war in the air?

In the end, the system of checks and balances works pretty well in America. If someone wants to make the strongest nation in the world even stronger, it can only mean keeping the world on a stable path.

The ever-confident Wolfgang Schäuble. Although that confidence does feel a little forced at this point.

I wouldn’t even dispute that. The nature of our current communication with the United States is terrible. But we should react with the necessary reason. There are those who believe they can run a Bundestag election campaign against Trump, but it won’t do any good. If Europe assumes greater responsibility, we can also exert more influence. That’s why, in our G20 presidency, we consistently tried to emphasize cooperation rather than confrontation. And by the way, we try to do the same thing with Russia.

But does political rationalism still prevail in the control center of the leading Western power, as we have to come to expect in the past?

I think we should not be looking at the communications via Twitter but at the decisions that are made. I’m not giving up hope.

But you agree with me that in the first six months, contrary to what many had hoped, we have not experienced a president who is getting the hang of his position and is conforming to the conventions of international diplomacy?

But we have also just seen that an American president, despite his immense power, cannot do as he pleases. He can say what he wants, but there is growing resistance, even in his own party, and even in the Senate. He needs to take that into account. Governing by bypassing others doesn’t work in the United States, and the courts there are courageous. There are a number of people in his administration who are saying: No, we have our responsibility. In this sense, I remain optimistic.

Jeremy Gray is an editor for Handelsblatt Global. The interview was conducted by Handelsblatt publisher Gabor Steingart.

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