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Eurogroup picks Dutch finance minister as new president

Jeroen Dijsselbloem steps into a position key to steering Europe through its debt crisis. He said there is room for both austerity and the financial aid southern Europe seeks.

By Peter TefferCorrespondent / January 22, 2013

Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem talks with journalists as he arrives for an Eurogroup finance ministers meeting at the EU Council in Brussels on Monday.

Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

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Amsterdam

Despite objections from austerity-racked Spain, the Eurogroup elected the Dutch finance minister as its new leader yesterday, putting Jeroen Dijsselbloem into prime position to help guide Europe through the ongoing debt crisis.

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Mr. Dijsselbloem (pronounced dye-sell-bloom) becomes just the second person to hold the presidency of the Eurogroup, the monthly meeting of finance ministers of the 17-member eurozone. He succeeds Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who held the position since its inception in 2005. The term is two-and-a-half years.

Dijsselbloem's election was not unanimous; Spain, which has been hit hard by austerity measures demanded by northern European nations like The Netherlands, voted against him. But he said there is room for both austerity and the financial aid that southern Europe is seeking.

"We will have to promote a balanced approach, recognizing that both discipline and solidarity are needed," he said.

While the Eurogroup started out as an informal meeting of finance ministers, it has become a crucial forum that links the technicalities of top officials and the politics of the European heads of state. As a result, the president, who sets the agenda of the Eurogroup, wields significant influence in Europe's economic policy – and over its response to the eurocrisis.

Sylvester Eijffinger, professor of European financial and monetary integration at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, says the president of the Eurogroup has become part of a "gang of four" – along with the presidents of the European Central Bank, the European Council, and the European Commission – who are key to solving the eurocrisis.

And while Eurogroup president ranks behind ECB President Mario Draghi and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy in power, Dijsselbloem could change that. “If Dijsselbloem is consistent," Eijiffinger says, "he might even become more influential than Van Rompuy.”

A pragmatic diplomat

Dijsselbloem is only in his twelfth week as Dutch finance minister. He has been politically active for 20 years, starting as a political assistant to a member of the European Parliament. Dijsselbloem has been a member of the Dutch parliament for the center-left Social Democrat party since 2000, until he became minister for finance in the new coalition government of Social Democrats and the center-right Liberals that has a majority in parliament. During coalition talks, Dijsselbloem was Social Democrat leader Diederik Samsom's deputy.

Although known within the center-left party as a conservative, Dijsselbloem is said to be a pragmatic and diplomatic politician. “Dijsselbloem was always solution-driven. He had strong opinions, but he was not dogmatic,” says Stijn Verbruggen, who was an aide to Dijsselbloem in parliament.

Dijsselbloem is not someone who appears to enjoy public attention, which is a good quality for this job, thinks Otto Holman, researcher at the University of Amsterdam. “A president of the Eurogroup needs to be able to put himself in the background,” says Mr. Holman.

Eijffinger agrees. “In European affairs you are much more effective conducting diplomacy behind the scenes than shouting your disagreement in front of a camera,” says Eijffinger. “His diplomatic qualities are well-regarded by the Germans and to the French he's acceptable because he is a social democrat.”

Divided against himself?

The weeks of speculation until last Thursday, when Dijsselbloem finally acknowledged he was a candidate for the job, led to speculation in the Netherlands on what the benefits might be of having a Dutch politician in that position.

“A Dijsselbloem presidency gives the Netherlands more influence in the decision-making process,” says Eijffinger.

However, there were also those who wondered if Dijsselbloem can combine his job as minister of finance with the position of Eurogroup president, on which Mr. Juncker has said he spends four hours daily. Two Dutch euroskeptic parties, who each have 15 of parliament's 150 seats, have pressed the minister to decline the offer. In addition to the heavy workload, they fear it will be harder for the Netherlands to defend its own interests with a Dutch Eurogroup president seeking compromise decisions.

Although another representative will fill in the seat for the Dutch in the Eurogroup meetings, Eurogroup President Dijsselbloem will sometimes have to advocate a different opinion than Dutch Finance Minister Dijsselbloem.

“That is a balancing act of which time will tell whether Dijsselbloem can perform it,” says Holman. But, he points out, “most media are unaware of when the Eurogroup convenes anyway. The limelight is always on the summits with government leaders. That is the Eurogroup's advantage; it operates in the political lee.”

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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