Delors and Schäuble leave melancholic legacies for Europe. Now no one is left in charge.

Jacques Delors and Wolfgang Schäuble, archetypal French and German finance ministers who became bywords for fiscal stringency, left enduring yet somewhat melancholic imprints on European politics.

The two men, who died on December 27 and 26 aged 98 and 81, respectively, were key figures in reshaping Europe’s post-Cold War architecture in the tumult of German reunification in 1989-1990 and the subsequent journey to a single European currency.

They depart the scene when the economic and strategic imperatives they espoused have fallen out of favor in their home countries—and their forcefully argued ideas on European integration are facing challenges on multiple fronts.

Delors, a one-time Banque de France official, was president of the European Commission for a decade from 1985. He was the institution’s most influential leader since the European Economic Community was established in 1957.

In 1988-89, under a plan masterminded by French President François Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, he led the Delors committee, mainly comprising European central bank governors. This set recommendations for an independent European central bank and a unified currency, eventually launched as the euro in January 1999.

Delors, Thatcher, and the European single market

Delors, French finance minister between 1981 and 1984, was a Christian Socialist who could appear on a higher moral plane than power-broking politicians and financial technocrats. His was a pugnacious piety. Like Schäuble, Delors could wield morality as a sword.

Delors saw a European monetary union as a vital ingredient of the European common market, over whose birth he presided in 1993, with the crucial support of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s quintessentially euroskeptical prime minister between 1979 and 1990.

But Delors alienated policymakers in Britain and elsewhere—and arguably helped spur the United Kingdom’s later European Union departure—by spelling out that the integrationist logic of the single currency would deeply constrain national decision-making.

Part of his credo was advocacy for a “social Europe” that Thatcher and other free marketeers believed overextended European regulation.

Schäuble’s role in healing a rift with Gorbachev

Schäuble held his Bundestag seat in for fifty-one years, the longest span in German parliamentary history extending back to 1848, and he was the German finance minister from 2009 to 2017. He finished his days as Europe’s most experienced politician.

He sparked criticism in southern Europe—and, most potently, from the administration of US President Barack Obama—for his insistence on orthodoxy during the 2010-15 European sovereign debt turmoil.

In 2011, he unsuccessfully urged Greece to leave the euro for a multi-year “pause” to allow the Greek government policy space for reforms. For all the dubiousness of the idea, he remained convinced to the end that it was right.

German archives reveal Schäuble’s key role in 1988 as Kohl’s trusted chancellery minister, along with another veteran of the early Kohl era, Horst Teltschik, in healing a damaging public rift with Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev. This was caused by Kohl’s spectacularly thoughtless comparison of the Soviet leader with Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief.

Without this diplomatic maneuvering, German unification would likely not have become reality. When it did, Schäuble, as Kohl’s interior minister, engineered, negotiated, and signed the 1990 unification treaty with the East German government.

Four years later, with fellow Christian Democratic Union (CDU) politician Karl Lamers, Schäuble coauthored a celebrated report arguing for a flexible form of European integration around a “hard core” centered on France and Germany. The concept has attracted many adherents over the years, seen most recently in a Franco-German expert document published in September on the future of Europe. Yet it now appears an oversimplistic model to meet the current challenges.

Home-spun rectitude of the “Swabian housewife”

Schäuble, who was from southeastern Germany, made a show of upholding the home-spun financial rectitude of the classic “Swabian housewife” (a phrase often invoked by Chancellor Angela Merkel). Unusually for a German finance minister, he garnered impressive popularity among the German public.

Schäuble’s high domestic reputation was one of the factors persuading Christian Lindner, the current finance minister in the ill-starred three-party coalition of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, to take the post. The results have so far been disastrous tor Lindner’s liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). Lindner has received little credit for success and much blame for the coalition’s shortcomings. The FDP has lost ground heavily in regional elections and opinion surveys.

In 2009, marking a high point of Germany’s assumption of moral authority over the rest of the eurozone, Schäuble and Merkel helped introduce into the German constitution a stipulation for a near-balanced annual budget—the so-called “debt brake.” Formal responsibility lay with Schäuble’s finance minister predecessor, Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück, but it bore Schäuble’s stamp.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. But a landmark November 2023 judgment by the constitutional court in Karlsruhe has now plunged Scholz’s government into disarray by ruling that the three-party coalition had failed to honor this legal requirement. Schäuble died with the political, judicial, and economic ramifications of this notorious debt brake still far from resolved.

Sharp intellect and mordant humor

Delors and Schäuble were men of sharp intellect and mordant humor. Their conversations in public and private could be sardonic and withering. Yet both made convincing, often deeply emotional cases for policies furthering European understanding.

Part of Schäuble’s charm was that he was often far more polite than expected to foreign government representatives in one-on-one meetings. “How could I be rude to your prime minister?” he once asked me.

Political circumstances and, in Schäuble’s case, a life-changing injury in a 1990 assassination attempt that left his lower body paralyzed, prevented the two men on several occasions from holding their countries’ highest offices, but reinforced their independence and penchant for plain speaking.

Blame for the European Central Bank

The Bundesbank’s website to this day sports Delors’s timeless bon mot from 1992: “Not all Germans believe in God, but they all believe in the Bundesbank.” (This is placed next to a 1993 quote from Thatcher: “If I were German, I would definitely keep the Bundesbank and the D-Mark.”)

In 2012, Delors publicly stated that the European Central Bank (ECB) should share the blame with wayward politicians from Europe’s periphery for allowing the buildup of the sovereign debt crisis through lax southern-state economic policies.

In 2016, Schäuble castigated Mario Draghi, the ECB president, for the central bank’s low interest rates and quantitative easing—blaming Draghi for half of the success of the newly formed anti-euro Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

As finance minister in Paris, although initially only number sixteen in Mitterrand’s governmental hierarchy, Delors was already stiffened by experience as a social policy adviser in 1969 to Jacques Chaban-Delmas, French President Georges Pompidou’s war-hero prime minister. In March 1983, Delors rescued Mitterrand’s presidency by introducing economic rigor into an administration rocked by three franc devaluations. Passed over by Mitterrand for promotion to prime minister in 1984, he switched to the European Commission with Kohl’s backing.

Delors’s fear of “being devoured”

Mindful of the fickleness of Mitterrand’s persona, Delors went to extreme lengths to keep his distance from the president. “When I was brought into the government as finance minister, I wanted to remain separate from Mitterrand,” he told me in 2007. “Otherwise, I would have ended up being devoured by him.”

In December 1994, toward the end of Mitterrand’s fourteen-year tenure, Delors rejected a call from his Socialist Party to run in the 1995 presidential elections. Opinion polls suggested at the time he could have won against right-wing Jacques Chirac, who succeeded Mitterrand.

Before and during Kohl’s fourth term between 1994 and 1998—coinciding with the fraught final steps toward introducing the euro in 1999—the German chancellor turned down the chance of making Schäuble his successor. Kohl seemed to believe that a chancellor paralyzed from the waist down would lack the strength to complete the single currency.

This was the beginning of a final break between Kohl and his erstwhile lieutenant that left abiding wounds. Kohl failed to grasp what became obvious to a later generation of international finance ministers: Schäuble’s intimidating intelligence, delivered from a wheelchair, gave him a formidable bonus in pathos, persuasiveness, and power.

When Kohl lost the 1998 general election to Gerhard Schröder from the Social Democratic Party, Schäuble became CDU party chairman. But in 2000 Schäuble gave up the position to Merkel following his embroilment in a party funding scandal.

Political maneuvering aimed at making him German federal president in 2004, and again in 2022, came to nothing.

Schäuble’s skin-deep loyalty to Merkel

Schäuble served for twelve of Merkel’s sixteen-year chancellorship as her interior and finance minister. Although he admired her intellect and respected her authority, his oft-protested loyalty to her was formalistic and skin-deep.

He pointedly refrained from endorsing her as one of Germany’s leading chancellors alongside Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, and Kohl. And he habitually reminded interlocutors of his skepticism over many of her policies, for example what he regarded as mistakes over immigration and excessive compliance toward Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Schäuble’s record shows some similarities to that of Edward Heath, Britain’s pro-European Conservative prime minister in 1970-74, whose spell in parliament, like Schäuble’s, spanned fifty-one consecutive years. After two lost general elections, Heath in 1975 gave way as party leader to Thatcher. On the backbenches for the rest of his twenty-six years in the House of Commons, he showed ill-concealed disdain for his successor, indulging in what has been called “the longest sulk in modern politics.”

But Schäuble did not sulk. He served in ministerial office under Merkel and reached the pinnacle as Bundestag president in 2017. But, in matters that counted, the final two decades of his parliamentary career gave him no shortage of opportunities for hinting at antipathy toward the powerful woman who superseded him.

Time of disarray

The demise of Delors and Schäuble comes at a time of disarray. French President Emmanuel Macron, who has championed many Delorsian policies, looks becalmed only eighteen months into his second term. The possibility of his replacement by far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the 2027 presidential election is looming larger.

Schäuble’s legacy of the constitutional debt brake appears to be an expensive mistake. It deprives Germany both of an important lever for revitalizing creaking infrastructure and—in view of the international fallout from the Karlsruhe judgment—of its sway over European economic policies.

Delors’s Socialist Party has disappeared as a French political force. Schäuble’s CDU, now led by ally Friedrich Merz, is performing well in the polls, but the anti-euro AfD now polls higher than any of the three parties in Scholz’s shaky coalition.

Many dangers, known and unforeseen, wait in the wings. Two intellectual titans leave the European stage with no one in charge.

David Marsh is the chairman and cofounder of the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum (OMFIF), an independent research and advisory group in the United Kingdom.

A version of this article also appeared on the OMFIF website.

Further reading

Image: Thomas Koehler/; REUTERS