23rd Mar 2018

Portuguese minister favourite in 'open' Eurogroup race

  • Potugal's Mario Centeno is said to have the support of Germany, France, Italy and Spain as well as Greece (Photo: Council of the EU)

Eurozone finance ministers will choose the new president of their Eurogroup meetings on Monday (4 December), in a vote that has one favourite and a few unknowns.

Portugal's Mario Centeno, Luxembourg's Pierre Gramegna, Slovakia's Peter Kazimir and Latvia's Dana Reizniece-Ozola are candidates to succeed Jeroen Dijsselbloem.

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  • Latvia's Dana Reizniece-Ozola (l) and Slovakia's Peter Kazimir (r) hope to overturn the odds (Photo: Council of the EU)

Dijsselbloem, who has been president since January 2013, is no longer a member of the Eurogroup, after his Labour Party failed to enter the new Dutch government.

Centeno, an economist who will turn 51 on Saturday, is the favourite.

He is a minister in a coalition between the Socialist Party (PS), the radical Left Bloc (BE) and the Communist Party (PCP) that was put in place in May 2016.

The Party of European Socialists (PES) say that the Eurogroup presidency should come to them, as the EU's three main institutions – the commission, the council and the parliament – are held by the centre-right EPP party.

In an implicit recognition of the Socialists' claim, the EPP itself has not presented any candidate.

"We have to have this time a Socialist leader of the Eurogroup, and I would say it is broadly admitted," PES president Sergei Stanishev said at a party meeting in Lisbon on Saturday.

"The message that Mario Centeno is the candidate of our family is delivered," he said, adding that he was "hopeful".

Centeno is said to have the support of Germany, France, Italy and Spain as well as Greece.

The Portuguese government is a leftist government that has succeeded in reducing the deficit while rejecting austerity policies.

Centeno's election as Eurogroup president would be a political sign in favour of more social policies as well as a reward to a non-confrontational leftist government - in contrast to Syriza's first months in power in Greece in 2015.

'Open race'

But although Centeno is favourite "at 90 percent", several officials pointed out that the vote of the 19 ministers will be secret.

"It's an open race," noted a close observer.

"We could have surprises," a source said, noting that all votes will have the same weight, whatever the size and influence of the ministers' countries.

Despite the PES support to Centeno, he is challenged by another Social Democrat, Slovakia's Kazimir.

Kazimir said last week that his "watchword" as candidate was "homework" – a code word for reforms – "at home and in the eurozone".

He also said that he wanted to "build bridges", in particular between eurozone members and the other EU countries.

Kazimir, who was one of the toughest members of the Eurogroup during the Greek crisis in 2015, hopes that some ministers, even in his political family, will prefer his "common sense" to what is presented as Centeno's more ideological positions.

Slovakia, who lost the race to host the European Medicines Agency, also argues that a better balance between eastern and western EU is needed when it comes to top positions.

'Where are Liberals in top jobs?'

"Kazimir has substantial support," one of the source said. "But Portugal is pushing hard and there are backroom deals underway for sure."

Another contender is Luxembourg's Gramegna, from the Liberal political family, which also claims a better representation in EU institutions.

"Where are Liberals in top jobs? This is not acceptable," Luxembourg's prime minister Xavier Bettel said on Saturday at the congress of the Alde party in Amsterdam.

He said that he "hoped" that Liberal ministers would be "able to have a common goal and common interests" in Monday's vote.

But only six governments out of the 19 represented in the Eurogroup are led by Liberals, and one of them, the Dutch government, has not expressed its support for the Luxembourgish candidate.

Dutch PM Mark Rutte told EUobserver in Amsterdam that his government's choice would be made over the weekend and would probably remain secret even after the vote.

Luxembourg's controversial tax practices and the fact that the country already holds the European Commission with Jean-Claude Juncker, are considered as detrimental to Gramegna's bid.

Smart, skilled but unknown

The last candidate, Latvia's Reizniece-Ozola, has theoretically the less support, but she could be the disrupting outsider.

Reizniece-Ozola, a 36-year old chess player who holds the title of Woman Grandmaster, is a member of the Union of Greens and Farmers, and a minister in a coalition led by conservatives.

"She is smart and skilled," one of the sources said, even if "some people like to remind her of her opposition to the introduction of euro in Latvia" in 2014.

"Being an outsider sometimes helps but not always," the official said, while another noted that "she is quite unknown."

As a Baltic minister, she could however appeal (as well as Kazimir) to ministers who want more discipline in budget policies, one of the officials noted.

"With four candidates, it is unlikely to have a winner in the first round," another said. "Once Gramegna is out, some EPP could vote for Centeno and the election could be fast.

"But you never know. De Guindos also thought he would win," the official added, referring to the Spanish minister who lost against Dijsselbloem in 2015.

In the end, the official noted, "much will depend on the vote of Germany".

Eurogroup closes Schaeuble era

Eurozone finance ministers bade farewell to their longest-serving and most influential colleague, while preparing to also replace its chairman at the end of the year.

Eurozone chief in 'drinks and women' row

[Updated] The Netherlands' Jeroen Dijsselbloem faces calls for resignation after saying that crisis-hit countries in southern Europe spent "money on drinks and women" before being helped by others.


How Portugal's leftist 'contraption' works

After six months in power, the improvised left-wing coalition between socialists, leftists and communists has managed to rule and even thrived, to many Portuguese's surprise.

Centeno: Eurogroup picks Southern head

Portuguese finance minister was chosen by his eurozone colleagues with a 'very substantial majority' after he appeared to be the only one ticking the boxes.

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