European officials said the White House finally toned down its support for Mr Wolfowitz in the face of united and unrelenting European opposition to his continuing in office.
Diplomats agree that Germany led the European opposition and a senior official close to Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday said that, despite repeated lobbying from the White House, Berlin would not change its stance. “It remains the best for the bank if Mr Wolfowitz stands aside,” the official said.
Washington’s attempts to win more time by proposing a step-by-step procedure – to deal first with the ethics violations, and later to consider Mr Wolfowitz’s future – also had no support in Berlin. “Its better to get this over with, rather than have it dragged out over time,” the official said.
Europe has maintained a common front despite intensive US telephone diplomacy with European finance ministries in recent days.
“We have been very polite and have practically said nothing in public but Wolfowitz has had practically no support in Europe from the very beginning [of the crisis],” said an European Union diplomat.
“From the first moment, when the ministerial meeting [of finance ministers in Washington a month ago] took place, the ministers made it very clear.”
The relationship between EU countries and Mr Wolfowitz had always been strained as a result of his involvement in the Iraq conflict.
This rings true for key players in the German government, especially Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, the development minister who spearheaded Germany’s role in the Wolfowitz affair.
Berlin has been central partly because it holds the EU presidency but Germany will also chair the 24-nation board that will ultimately decide on the bank president’s future. That Britain and France are both in a period of political transition accentuated Berlin’s importance.
Ms Wieczorek-Zeul believed the bank risked losing credibility in its anti-corruption battle and expressed that view to the US government when she attended World Bank meetings in Washington in April.
According to people close to her she hesitated in going public with her call for Mr Wolfowitz to resign. But, seeing little change in Washington, she gave a newspaper interview on April 22 in which she declared that Mr Wolfowitz was putting the credibility of the bank “in doubt”, adding: “He would be doing the bank a service if [he paid] the consequences – and the sooner the better.”
Her comments have acted as the de facto European position, behind which other EU governments – equally convinced that the president should resign – have taken shelter.
Washington was unable to rely on London, its closest European ally, for backing. Hilary Benn, Britain’s international development secretary, is known to have been opposed to Mr Wolfowitz staying in office.
“Our sense is that the real problem the Europeans have with Wolfowitz is not over the conflict of interest issue but Iraq,” said an Asian diplomat.
“The Asian countries don’t want this fight – there are few anti-American countries among us – but the Europeans want to get rid of him.”