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German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble waits for the start of a meeting of eurogroup finance ministers at the EU Council building in Brussels on Monday, Feb. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)The Associated Press

At a news conference on Tuesday, Wolfgang Schaeuble, Europe's most powerful finance minister, oozed frustration. He sighed. He frowned. He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. He tried to smile, but it looked more like a grimace.

"What do they actually want? What is their plan? Do they have one? I don't know," said Germany's Mr. Schaeuble, referring to the ongoing negotiations with Greece's newly elected government. Everyone wants the euro zone to stay intact, he said. But "it's entirely a decision for Athens."

The blunt talk from Mr. Schaeuble marks a turning point in the current crisis. At 72, he is an unusual and important figure in Germany's political landscape. He could not be more different from Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's new finance minister, an eloquent academic and political neophyte who shuns ties and is partial to leather jackets.

But for clues on how the crisis will end, Mr. Schaeuble is the one to watch. Unlike Mr. Varoufakis, Mr. Schaeuble is a tough, seasoned career politician who is an informal number two to Chancellor Angela Merkel. In 1990, he survived an assassination attempt that left him in a wheelchair – and still went back to work within months.

Mr. Schaeuble is also deeply committed to the European project. He is the only German politician still in government who helped forge the treaty responsible for creating the euro in the first place.

"I would not imagine that Schaeuble wants to be the finance minister under which Germany pushed Greece to leave [the euro zone]. He would not want that responsibility in history," said Ulrike Guérot of the European School of Governance in Berlin. "And yet, he's harsh."

The recent my-way-or-the-highway statements from Mr. Schaeuble have intensified the showdown between Greece and its European partners. Judging by past experience, negotiators are likely to reach a deal at the last possible minute, but with each passing day, the danger grows.

If Mr. Schaeuble is losing his patience, it's a bad sign. In recent days, he has accused the new government in Athens of acting irresponsibly. "Simply saying, 'we need more money again and we're not going to do anything any more,' and then insulting people, that absolutely won't work," he said in a television interview on Tuesday.

This is not the first time that Mr. Schaeuble has been at the centre of a major political tug-of-war. Indeed, he's been involved in them for decades. A protégé of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Mr. Schaeuble was the lead negotiator for West Germany as it hammered out its reunification treaty with East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Days after Germany was reunified in the fall of 1990, a mentally ill man shot Mr. Schaeuble – who was then interior minister – during a campaign event at a tavern. He survived, but the injury left him semi-paralyzed and reliant on a wheelchair.

Mr. Schaeuble has a long and complicated relationship with Ms. Merkel. He was once tipped to become chancellor himself, but that job ended up going to her instead (he was tarnished by a campaign-finance scandal, unlike Ms. Merkel).

Yet despite that history – the German magazine Der Spiegel dubbed the two politicians "frenemies" – Mr. Schaeuble is now Ms. Merkel's trusted, if independent-minded, deputy.

That's especially clear from the division of labour in recent weeks. Ms. Merkel has crisscrossed the globe attempting to hammer out a ceasefire in Ukraine, entrusting Germany's role in the Greece negotiations to Mr. Schaeuble, her finance minister since 2009. Prior to that, he was interior minister in her cabinet, where he earned a reputation as a hardliner in matters of security and counterterrorism.

Trained as a lawyer, Mr. Schaeuble grew up in Freiburg near the German border with France. European integration – and the peaceful relationship between Germany and France – is something he holds dear. He reads the French newspaper Le Monde every day. He is "a deep believer that Europe is more than just a give-and-take project where everyone counts their beans at the end of it," said one person who knows him.

In 2012, Mr. Schaeuble was awarded the Charlemagne Prize, bestowed in recognition of significant efforts to advance European unity. Hans Peter Shuetz, Mr. Schaeuble's biographer, later told The Guardian that the finance minister had tears in his eyes after he accepted the award, saying it was the greatest honour he had ever received.

Mr. Schaeuble was deeply involved in the race to shore up Greece's finances starting in 2010. He was one of the first to float the idea of a permanent rescue fund for the euro zone and to suggest that private investors assume losses on their holdings of Greek bonds – ideas that were both later implemented.

In Greece, Mr. Schaeuble's efforts are detested. In one sign of the enmity directed at him and at Germany, a left-wing newspaper associated with Syriza, the new ruling party, published a caricature last week of Mr. Schaeuble in a Nazi uniform. "We insist on soap from your fat," it pictured him saying, a reference to the fate of some of those murdered in the Holocaust.

Mr. Schaeuble claimed not to have seen the caricature. But he noted with satisfaction earlier this week that Mr. Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister, had approached him on Monday and said that the drawing was shameful.

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