Dutch elections raise questions on Eurogroup's chair
After his Labour party's substantial defeat in Wednesday's Dutch elections, Jeroen Dijsselbloem could stand to lose his finance minister portfolio but stay on as president of the Eurogroup.
The issue may be raised at Monday's meeting (20 March) of the eurozone finance ministers. EU officials and ministers are suggesting nobody would push Dijsselbloem out, at least for now.
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Negotiations for the next Dutch government have not started and could take weeks, or months, as a multi-party coalition will have to be found.
At least four parties or more are needed to form a majority coalition of 76 seats.
While it seems politically feasible to make a core of centre-right Liberals, together with the centre-right Christian-Democrats and the centrist pro-EU D66 party – 71 of 150 seats, the real challenge is finding a party to fill the gap.
The only scenario in which Dijsselbloem, elected as an MP, would return as finance minister would be in a grand coalition of the Liberals, Christian-Democrats, D66, and Labour.
But with only 9 seats, down from 29 in the outgoing parliament, the Labour Party will not be the first partner the Liberals will try to find. And, after 4.5 years in coalition with the Liberals that ended in a resounding defeat, Labour might prefer reinventing itself in opposition.
As long as a government is not formed, an EU official pointed out, "Dijsselbloem stays as caretaker minister".
Dijsselbloem has been finance minister since 2012. He was elected Eurogroup president in 2013 and renewed in July 2015. His 2.5-year mandate ends in January 2018.
According to the rules of the Eurogroup, an informal EU body, "a candidate needs to be minister of finance", the EU official said, suggesting that the principle would not apply to Dijsselbloem, who is already in place.
"That has no impact on the continued presidency of Jeroen Dijsselbloem," the official added.
Spanish finance minister Luis de Guindos was the candidate against Dijsselbloem in 2015. He declined to say on Thursday whether he would try to run for the post again.
"We have a president of the Eurogroup and he is the Dutch minister of finance, I will not anticipate events," De Guindos told journalists in Madrid.
He insisted that talks of Dijsselbloem leaving his position were "speculation", which he would not entertain "for the moment".
A member of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), De Guindos would, however, face difficulties becoming Eurogroup president.
After the election of EPP's Antonio Tajani as European Parliament president to succeed Martin Schulz, the Eurogroup presidency is the last top EU post held by the Party of European Socialists (PES), with the head of the EU diplomacy held by Federica Mogherini.
"There is a global balance, in which one element of the puzzle has changed [political] colour," French finance minister Michel Sapin noted after the parliament election in January.
He said that the new post held by the EPP - along with the European Commission and Council presidency - "tilted the sharing of responsibilities on one side" and that it would be "an important element" to take into account when choosing a new Eurogroup chair.
A serious contender hailing from the PES would be Slovakia's Peter Kazimir.
In January, when asked about the possibility that Dijsselbloem might not remain finance minister after the Dutch election, Kazimir quipped: "Jeroen the first is still alive. It's not polite to raise the issue."
'Continuity and stability'
Kazimir said that Dijsselbloem was doing "an excellent job inside and outside" and that "he should stay, no matter the Dutch election outcome".
"We need continuity and stability," he added.
But sources said that if Dijsselbloem was to quit, Kazimir would probably be a candidate. Although a Socialist, he is one of the most hawkish ministers on the Greek crisis and would be acceptable to his right-wing colleagues.
With the Greek bailout still under way and currently stuck in difficult negotiations, as well as upcoming elections in France and Germany - the eurozone's two main countries - coming this spring and autumn, it is unlikely that Dijsselbloem's colleagues will ask him to leave before the end of his mandate.
Ultimately, the decision could be Dijsselbloem's, once he leaves his ministry for good.