BERLIN – Former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi was awarded Germany's highest honor on Friday, a recognition of his central role in helping preserve Europe's single currency that has met with some criticism in the eurozone's biggest economy.
Draghi was the ECB's president from 2011 until the end of October. The 72-year-old Italian is credited with rescuing the euro from disaster at the height of its debt crisis with a well-timed phrase and bold action to back up his words.
“You preserved what others seemed prepared to give up,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at a ceremony in Berlin before decorating Draghi with the Order of Merit. “No one wants to imagine where Europe would stand today if not only had the United Kingdom left the European Union, but the eurozone had been allowed to erode or even break up.”
Draghi expanded the bank's arsenal of crisis-fighting tools with new and unconventional policies. At a critical moment in July 2012, he told an investment conference that the euro was "irreversible" and added that “within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.”
But critics question the long-term impact of his stimulus efforts and argue they deterred governments from improving their finances. Criticism of his approach has been particularly loud in Germany, where many point to a legacy of zero interest on savings.
“Why Mr. Draghi should get the Order of Merit is a mystery,” Markus Blume, the general secretary of the Christian Social Union — the smallest of Germany's three governing parties — told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper last weekend. “What is Mr. Draghi's service to our country?”
Steinmeier defended the Frankfurt-based ECB against its German critics and said he hoped “misunderstandings” can be overcome.
“The careless finger-pointing at Frankfurt worries me,” he said. “We only have one ECB. Germany needs the ECB and the ECB needs Germany.”
Draghi said he was “deeply honored” by the award from “the country which stands at the heart of Europe.” And he stressed that the central bank has always respected the rules.
“At the heart of stability culture is a deep-rooted respect for the law, the rules in one's mandate,” he said. “This is the euro's DNA and has pervaded the ECB's actions throughout its history.”