Straight-shooting Steinbrueck no stranger to controversy

20th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

In his stint at the helm of Europe's largest economy, Germany's finance minister has offended Switzerland, Israel and Britain and has also fallen out with his own German colleagues.

BERLIN -- Peer Steinbrueck, the straight-talking German finance minister at the centre of a spat with Switzerland over bank secrecy that has seen him compared to a Nazi, is no stranger to controversy.

In his three-and-a-half year stint at the helm of Europe's largest economy, the 62-year-old father of three has offended not only Switzerland, but also Israel and Britain, as well as falling out with his own German colleagues.

Considered highly intelligent but prickly with a sharp-tongue and wicked wit, the latest scandal has seen him dubbed as "the most hated man in Switzerland" and receive hate mail from Germany's Alpine neighbour.

What put Swiss noses out of joint was his use of a Wild West analogy, saying the threat of Switzerland being placed on an international tax haven blacklist was a deterrent comparable to cavalry scaring the "Indians."

"The cavalry in Fort Yuma doesn't always have to ride out. Sometimes it is sufficient just for the Indians to know that they are there," Steinbrueck was quoted as saying at a meeting of Group of 20 finance ministers in Britain.

One tabloid splashed an unflattering photo of him on the front page under the headline: "The hated German."

A Christian Democrat parliamentarian said Steinbrueck reminded him of "the old generation of Germans, who 60 years ago went through the streets with leather coats, boots and armbands."

Steinbrueck hit back in the German media Thursday, saying the attacks on him were "totally out of proportion and unacceptable."

But it is not the first time his unminced words have landed him in hot water.

Perceived as fiscally conservative, he lashed out at British plans to slash VAT and boost debt as "crass" and "breathtaking," forcing him to back-pedal furiously amid diplomatic fury from London at his unwanted interference.

Steinbrueck also provoked anger in Tel Aviv in 2007 when he ruled out a renegotiation of the Holocaust reparations deal between Germany and Israel.

His off-the-cuff comments to journalists have also prompted unintended consequences.

During a period of massive volatility on the foreign exchange markets, Steinbrueck quipped: "I love cash and I love a strong euro," causing pandemonium on trading floors worldwide, as twitchy analysts interpreted the joke as acceptance of a high exchange rate.

A senior member of the Social Democrats in Germany, he had a famously difficult relationship with former economy minister Michael Glos, a Bavarian conservative from the other end of the political spectrum.

A sociable man, who enjoys the occasional cigar and whose briefings to journalists over a few beers have been known to extend late into the night, he is said to have good relations with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But he is reported to be disliked by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a feeling that appears to be mutual.

After Steinbrueck criticised France for failing to live up to its European fiscal commitments, Sarkozy reportedly said to the minister: "I forbid you to speak to me in that tone."


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