Brussels: Jeroen Dijsselbloem of The Netherlands took over on Monday as chairman of the key Eurogroup of finance ministers, despite resistance in a vote to replace Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker.
“We appointed the Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem to become the new president of the Eurogroup,” Juncker told a press conference after barely five hours of talks.
A Eurogroup statement said Dijsselbloem was given a 30-month term and that he “will retain his (Dutch) post whilst chairing the Eurogroup.”
The decision—opposed by one government confirmed by German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble to be Spain—brought to an end eight years mostly spent battling global financial headwinds that morphed into the euro zone debt crisis for Prime Minister Juncker, Europe’s longest-serving national leader.
Dijsselbloem told a press conference that it was “a distinct honour to be given the possibility to succeed Jean-Claude”, saying that “only together can we surpass the current problems”.
He added that it was key to “preserve the social European model that we so much cherish.”
Only appointed nationally in November, Dijsselbloem had made a flying visit to Madrid on Thursday night after announcing his lone candidacy earlier that day in the Dutch parliament.
Still, it was the French who had been expected to cause waves over the succession to Juncker. Paris had vowed to push Dijsselbloem on his manifesto for the year ahead, but a source said in the end, France—given the Dutchman’s backing by euro powerbroker Germany—fell into line.
Juncker had admitted on his way into the Brussels talks feelings of “melancholy” and “relief” ahead of the handover, Dijsselbloem in turn hailing newfound “trust” in the euro on financial markets.
With tensions notably eased on markets compared to six months ago when worries were rife about a Greek exit from the euro, or Spain and Italy being forced into bailouts, Dijsselbloem said his job was all about “further restoring trust in the euro and the euro zone—that’s the main task in hand.
“There seems to be a new basis of trust,” he said, freeing politicians to focus on policies that can help foster “growth and jobs” with Europe currently labouring under a high unemployment rate of almost 12% across the euro zone.
In his submission addressed to counterparts, seen by AFP, Dijsselbloem said: “We must take the opportunity of the increased stability that we have achieved to put a stronger focus on preventive policy coordination.”
He underlined: “Our economic policies need to be geared towards promoting strong, sustainable and inclusive economic growth, ensuring fiscal discipline, enhancing competitiveness and boosting employment, and in particular youth employment.”
This, “in order for Europe to remain a highly competitive social market economy and to preserve the European social model.”
Dijsselbloem’s assessment chimed with that of top economists.
“Markets are no longer betting that the ECB (European Central Bank) will commit suicide by letting major member countries implode,” said Holger Schmieding of Germany’s Berenberg Bank.
Even Greece, despite a sixth year of recession, is said by its public creditors to be on the mend.
But there was little clarity on key euro zone issues going forward, such as a bailout for Cyprus first requested in the summer but now seen as increasingly in jeopardy.
Originally expected to lead the agenda here, a formal request for aid from Nicosia appears to have gone backwards with the long shadow of Russian money-laundering hanging over negotiations.
German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble even questioned whether any bailout should even take place.
“We have to examine whether the problems in Cyprus represent a danger for the euro zone as a whole. That is one of the pre-conditions for the money coming from the euro rescue fund,” he told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
French finance minister Pierre Moscovici had warned that Paris would demand an “open debate” on Juncker’s succession, insisting that “we can’t just resign ourselves to a Europe caught in a spiral of austerity and recession”.
However, Dijsselbloem’s left-leaning political philosophy appeared to soften the blow for Socialist French President Francois Hollande.
Juncker is expected to debrief Tuesday’s meeting of all 27 European Union finance ministers, which will otherwise focus on a bid by 11 euro zone states to launch a tax on financial transactions.