The global financial crisis almost destroyed the eurozone. Ask people in Paris or Rome what they think would have happened had Weber been in charge and few think it would have ended well. The assumption is that Weber, an adherent of the Bundesbank doctrine that says inflation must be kept low at almost any cost, would have been too rigid to take the radical measures needed to shore up the eurozone.
Most now credit the ECB with saving the euro after Draghi issued a direct challenge to doubters, threatening to buy potentially unlimited amounts of government bonds to counter speculation that the region was about to collapse. But this appalled orthodox German economists.
In 2012 Weidmann invoked Goethe’s Faust to warn of the potential perils of state financing by a central bank. In early scenes from the tragedy, Mephistopheles persuades a heavily indebted Holy Roman Emperor to print paper money to solve an economic crisis; after more and more money is printed, spiralling inflation ensues.
For now Weidmann contents himself with offering lukewarm praise for Draghi, while echoing a view I have heard on countless occasions in Germany that the ECB has done too much to bail out weaker members of the eurozone. "The ECB [is] certainly an institution that functions well," he says. "But this cannot be an argument for us to take over the role … of governments."
Ironically, Weidmann may be a beneficiary of the fact that nationality does still matter. It is because he is German that he is considered the frontrunner for the ECB presidency. While others, including Banque de France governor François Villeroy de Galhau and Dutch central bank president Klaas Knot have been mentioned in connection with the role, none are linked so frequently as the Bundesbank chief.
After a Dutch, French and Italian in the job, many see it as Germany’s time to head the ECB. The nomination of Spain’s economy minister Luis de Guindos for the post of ECB vice-president has also seemingly raised Weidmann’s chances: appointing a deputy from a southern state is seen as paving the way for a candidate from northern Europe to take the main prize.
The big question is whether Berlin would pay the price others would demand of it — widely assumed to be more monetary union. Would Weidmann view a deal on a common EU budget, which the French president, Emmanuel Macron, is pushing for, as a fair trade for a German ECB president?
It is, he says, another "absurd" debate. He cites the governorship of Jean-Claude Trichet, who headed the ECB from 2003 to 2011. "I mean, we had a French president of the ECB, and what did the Germans demand from the French to compensate for a French president? Did we introduce some other rule-based mechanism in contrast to that? Or did we ask for transfers for Germany to compensate for that?"
The consensus is that the Germans secured in return agreement that the ECB would be based in Frankfurt and in the design of the Bundesbank. Weidmann disagrees that this was a French concession. "It was the consensus at the time that an independent, stability-oriented central bank is the best way forward — everybody agreed."
So how will his intractability be received in Brussels? Weidmann plays down his dissent. "[In] some of the debates we might differ, [but] it’s never really the case that we have one outsider and the rest."
The record shows otherwise. In September 2012, Draghi confirmed that only one rate-setter went against his promise to do "whatever it takes" to save the currency union. People who were in the room say this was Weidmann.
In recent months Weidmann has strikingly moderated some of his positions. Indeed, the ease with which he managed the transition from Frankfurt to Berlin and back again led to comparisons with Thomas Becket, who was made Archbishop of Canterbury by King Henry II to curb the power of the church — and instead became its greatest defender. Weidmann demurs. "I never changed my fundamental beliefs or my views on certain things."
The desserts come — we both have the sorbet. The conversation turns to art in the Weimar era, the root of the national fear of hyperinflation. Weidmann knows his stuff, talking about Conrad Felixmüller’s paintings of coal miners in the Ruhr.
We order espressos. Central bankers, he tells me, are "very considerate, moderate personalities". I am not sure his ECB colleagues would agree. He might see a plurality of views as a sign of Europe’s strength; investors would see it as anything but. Then he and his bodyguard drive off in a BMW, purring towards the Bundesbank, in the opposite direction to the ECB — for now.