Dutchman hoping to lead euro zone out of age of crisis

AMSTERDAM Fri Jan 18, 2013 2:19pm EST

Netherlands' Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem takes a seat during his meeting with Luxembourg's Prime Minister and Eurogroup Chairman Jean-Claude Juncker in Luxembourg January 18, 2013. REUTERS/Laurent Dubrule

Netherlands' Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem takes a seat during his meeting with Luxembourg's Prime Minister and Eurogroup Chairman Jean-Claude Juncker in Luxembourg January 18, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Laurent Dubrule

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Jeroen Dijsselbloem had been finance minister of the Netherlands barely six weeks when his name was first floated as a possible head for the top euro zone decision-making body.

For a first-time minister previously best known as a specialist on agriculture and education, becoming the favorite to succeed the long-serving Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the Eurogroup of finance ministers is the latest stage in a dizzying rise.

But Dijsselbloem, 46, known in the 2000s as a radical leftist, has impressed in Brussels with a manner at once conciliatory and determined and with his austere personal style.

He is widely expected to be confirmed in the job on Monday when finance ministers of the 17 countries sharing the euro gather to choose their new helmsman, after receiving the backing of several governments and that of Juncker himself.

Watching Dijsselbloem in action at one of his first Eurogroup meetings in December, an EU diplomat recalled being impressed at the steely determination with which he inserted himself into the debate alongside some of Europe's big names.

At one point during tense negotiations over banking union proposals, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble went into a meeting room with other heavyweights, including European Commissioner Michel Barnier and European Central Bank president Mario Draghi.

The diplomat described Dijsselbloem thinking for a moment, before walking to the door, knocking politely and firmly, and entering. He remained inside until they all emerged together with a deal.

"The guy's got guts and grace, I'll say that," the diplomat said. "You could almost see him thinking through the options and then resolving himself to action."

But his Dutch pedigree must have helped once he was in that negotiating room: he comes from one of the euro zone's few remaining triple A-rated countries, and the Dutch are firmly in the German camp as sticklers for fiscal discipline.

His flawless English - he spent childhood summers at his parents' holiday home in England and is described by friends as an Anglophile - is another asset.

Announcing his candidacy on Thursday, Dijsselbloem told Dutch lawmakers he wanted to broaden out the Eurogroup's agenda beyond discussion of crisis measures and bail-out countries.

"It has to be broadened out to include economic cooperation and reinforcement," he said, adding that reforms were needed in virtually all the countries of the euro zone.

This conciliatory style marks a break with the blunt style of his predecessor Jan Kees De Jager, who ruffled feathers with his demands for fiscal discipline in the euro zone periphery.

He has carrots to go with the sticks. In December, he promised Dutch lawmakers he would help Greek tax authorities deal with tax dodgers by sending them details of hundreds of Greek yachts anchored in Dutch ports.

LESS DOGMATIC

Until now, the agricultural economist has been best known as a social policy specialist who was happy to speak out against his own party's shibboleths. When chairing a review of education policy, he spoke out against his own party's stance, saying it was too permissive and lacked rigour.

He is a close friend of Labour leader Diederik Samsom, a physicist, and, together with Staf Depla, now a councillor in the southern city of Eindhoven, they were part of a clique within Labour known as the "red engineers" because they had all studied at technical universities.

Following the election in September, Labour reached a coalition agreement with Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberals that is strong on budget discipline, promising to cut the deficit by 16 billion euros by 2017.

While the red engineers were seen as firebrands, Depla says they saw themselves as pragmatists: liberal on economic policy, less dogmatic about Labour's traditional social liberalism.

Dijsselbloem attracted attention in the socially liberal Netherlands by complaining about the amount of sexually explicit material broadcast on television.

"He's an old-fashioned guy, with a vintage look to him," said Rick van der Ploeg, an economist at Oxford University and former Dutch Labour politician.

More than one party colleague reached for the word "Calvinist" to describe the style of a man who is seen as a somewhat austere social conservative.

The son of an English teacher, Dijsselbloem graduated from Wageningen University, the most prestigious centre for agricultural studies in a country where farming is still central to national identity.

He worked for the Dutch agriculture ministry after finishing his postgraduate work in the Irish university town of Cork. A lawmaker since 2000, he has never fully turned his back on farming and to this day raises a handful of pigs in the garden of his riverside house outside Wageningen.

(Additional reporting by Luke Baker in Brussels; Editing by Sara Webb and Paul Taylor)

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