Wolfgang Schaeuble, veteran of German politics, dies at 81

BERLIN (Reuters) -Wolfgang Schaeuble, who served as a member of the German parliament for over half a century, has died aged 81, ending one of Germany’s longest political careers in which he helped secure his country’s place at the heart of Europe.

Schaeuble devoted much of his career to re-unifying his country and later served as former chancellor Angela Merkel’s finance minister during the eurozone debt crisis. He died peacefully late on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) said on Wednesday.

Schaeuble was born in 1942 in the southern city of Freiburg and had been a member of parliament without interruption since 1972.

“Germany has lost a formative Christian Democrat who loved to argue and yet never lost sight of what politics is all about: making life better for citizens,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in a statement.

As interior minister, Schaeuble, who represented the West, was key in drawing up the terms of Germany’s reunification treaty, signed in August 1990, after the fall of the Berlin wall.

“He epitomised post-war democratic Germany like few others,” said Interior Minister Nancy Faeser.

The CDU praised Schaeuble’s commitment to stability and responsibility in financial matters, saying “his legacy will live on in the annals of German and European history”.

As finance minister, Schaeuble pulled the strings of Germany’s policy response to the euro zone crisis, securing support on the right of Merkel’s conservative bloc for three Greek bailouts.

That determination bordering on intransigence helped make him the most popular German politician at home and the most hated abroad, earning him the soubriquet – bestowed by news magazine Spiegel – of “chancellor behind the scenes”.

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who was outspoken in his criticism of the austerity policies championed by Berlin at the height of the debt crisis, said on Wednesday that history would judge Schaeuble harshly.

“Wolfgang Schaeuble was the embodiment of the political project of buttressing a monetary union in which he himself did not believe,” wrote Varoufakis on his website.

However, praise for his contributions came from across Europe, including from leaders in France, Slovakia, the Netherlands and Italy.

“Europe loses one of its staunch supporters,” said Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani on X.

Schaeuble served as finance minister until 2017, when he took over as president of the Bundestag lower parliamentary house, showing the same focus that saw him adapt to paralysis after being shot three times at an election campaign event a few days after German reunification in 1990.

While that drive won him the respect of fellow conservatives and lawmakers from other parties, his career was not without setbacks.

For a time in the 1990s, Schaeuble was considered the anointed successor to former conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl. As head of the CDU in 1998 following Kohl’s election loss, Schaeuble had named Merkel as his deputy.

However, it was a pairing that would last less than a year and a half: Merkel was instrumental in forcing him to resign the CDU leadership in 2000 after a funding scandal, with Merkel taking over and eventually serving as chancellor in 2005.

“We will miss Wolfgang Schaeuble’s voice in Germany, I will personally miss his advice,” said Merkel in a statement. “I mourn the loss of a politician who shaped our country in many ways.”

(Reporting by Klaus Lauer and Rachel MoreEditing by Miranda Murray and Christina Fincher)