23rd Mar 2018

Finnish PM could replace Juncker as Eurogroup chief

Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen has invited select EU leaders and ministers to a "winter retreat" in Finland in what could be an opportunity to lobby for the top job in the eurozone.

His invitation, sent out on Tuesday (6 March), says the event, on 23-25 March in Saariselka, north Finland, will "focus on economic affairs" and look for "ways to resolve the economic crisis in Europe."

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But it comes amid widespread speculation in Finnish and Swedish media, as well as among diplomats in Brussels, that he wants to take over when Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker steps down from the post in June.

While eurozone summits are in future to be chaired by Belgium's Herman Van Rompuy, the Eurogroup chief presides over monthly meetings of eurozone finance ministers, which decides on vital issues such as details of the Greek bail-out.

Support for Kaitanen's as-yet unofficial bid came Monday evening from Vienna.

When Austrian finance minister Maria Fekter laid out criteria for the Juncker replacement, she said it must be a eurozone leader with experience as a finance minister who comes from a triple A-rated country - all boxes ticked by the Finn.

"He should come from a country that doesn't have a [bail-out] programme at the moment, but instead is so stable and well positioned that an enormous credibility is connected with his position. And the heads of government will have to wrack their brains to find whoever best fulfils these attributes," Fekter said.

She added that the Eurogroup chief decision must be taken as part of a package of appointments, which also includes European Central Bank (ECB) board members and at the head of the permanent bail-out fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM).

Meanwhile, southern euro-countries may object to having another Finn in charge of eurozone meetings.

Olli Rehn, the EU economic affairs commissioner, also comes from Finland.

One EU diplomat told this website that the Finnish government is currently perceived as being "more hawkish than Germany" when it comes to policing eurozone bail-outs.

"We also have to start the debate what this posting is about - do we want the same kind of leadership as under Juncker, a permanent chairman or not?" another EU source said.

Juncker served as both finance minister and prime minister of Luxembourg and could "go back and forth" between EU summits and eurozone ministers' meetings. But the new Eurogroup chair will instead share tasks with Van Rompuy under his new eurozone summit chair role.

At the other end of the scale, a low-level "working group" of finance ministry officials already prepares Eurogroup meetings and is currently chaired by an Austrian, Thomas Wieser.

"The new Eurogroup chief will have to be somewhere in between - not too low key but maybe with not too big of a profile either, [because] that's Van Rompuy," the source said.

Van Rompuy is heading to Luxembourg on Wednesday to discuss the Juncker succession.

Remaining posts up for grabs are for an ECB board member from Spain, the head of the Luxembourg-based ESM and the head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London.

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