Battle to lead Eurogroup reaches climax

Combo pictute of the four candidates. [Council]

Eurozone finance ministers pick the replacement for Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem on Monday (4 December), with four countries led by Portugal battling for the challenge of guiding the eurozone currency bloc through much needed reforms.

Finance ministers from Latvia, Luxembourg, Slovakia and Portugal have thrown their hats into the ring with a decision expected Monday afternoon when the 19 Eurogroup ministers cast their vote at a closed session in Brussels.

The job is one of the most strategic in the European Union, tasked with guiding economic policy in the face of clashing opinions and resistance, most notably by Germany.

“I fully expect that the process will take one or two rounds,” a senior eurozone official said ahead of the vote, on condition of anonymity. “The procedure is set up so that a candidate emerges after only one or two rounds.”

The winning candidate must secure ten votes to win.

Portuguese Finance Minister Mário Centeno is widely expected to take the prize, having won the support of Spain and positive signs from France and Italy, the eurozone’s second and third biggest economies. European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has also backed him.

“I have decided to put forward my candidacy for the presidency of the Eurogroup… with the intention of working towards a necessary consensus to complete Europe’s economic and monetary union,” Centeno said in a statement.

His candidacy marks a big turnaround for Portugal since the worst of the debt crisis in which Lisbon was bailed out and forced to push through painful reforms to save its economy.

Also running is Slovakia’s Peter Kažimír, a strong backer of Germany’s austerity-heavy approach, but he is seen as a long shot after controversial comments about Greece during bailout talks in 2015.

In a surprise, Latvian Finance Minister Dana Reizniece-Ozola, 36 and a chess grandmaster, is also running, though she is relatively unknown to her colleagues.

Their bids come soon after the EU’s eastern member states were painfully overlooked in favour of France and the Netherlands to be the new hosts for EU agencies forced to leave London after Brexit.

Luxembourg’s Pierre Gramegna, a veteran diplomat, has also confirmed his candidacy, which is seen as a safety choice in case the others cancel each other out.

‘Europe needs to be stronger’ 

Elected for two and a half years, the head of the Eurogroup chairs the monthly meetings of finance ministers of the 19 countries that use the euro, with the main responsibility of coordinating the often clashing economic policies and priorities of its members.

Former Dutch finance minister Dijsselbloem must step down as Eurogroup head after losing his ministerial job when his party suffered a poor election result earlier this year.

The job is one of Europe’s top posts, with the holder considered one of the EU’s “five presidents” along with European Commission head Juncker and European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi.

The role was especially crucial during the tumultuous years of the eurozone debt crisis and Greek bailout negotiations, when the bloc’s ministers faced the daunting task of saving the euro currency from near collapse.

With his dry humour and clashes with Greece’s maverick former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, Dijsselbloem became the face of a sensible, austerity-pushing eurozone during the crisis.

Ministers have myriad considerations in selecting a candidate, including nationality and political leaning, with Centeno’s socialist party widely considered to be due a top post.

The first order of business for the incoming chief will be shepherding through reforms of the eurozone, which the ministers will discuss on Monday.

The reform push is part of wider efforts, spurred by French President Emmanuel Macron, to pursue deeper integration after Britain’s vote last year to leave the bloc.

Greece’s third bailout will also quickly come on to the agenda, with Athens expecting debt relief from its eurozone partners next year, a move powerful Germany believes is not necessary.