BRUSSELS Jan 22 It started as an informal
dinner among European finance ministers more than 14 years ago
and has steadily gained prominence under its veteran president,
But on Monday the grey-haired Juncker, 58, handed the reins
of the Eurogroup to a polished 46-year-old Dutchman, promising a
new approach to how economic policy among the 17 euro zone
countries is shaped and decided.
After a 16-1 vote, the finance ministers named Jeroen
Dijsselbloem, an Irish-educated social democrat with flawless
English, to succeed Juncker, a Luxembourger who had headed the
group for eight years. Only Spain opposed the appointment.
Juncker's departure signals the end of an era during which
policy - including some of the most critical decisions of the
debt crisis - was frequently discussed until the early hours of
the morning over dinner and wine in a smoke-filled room.
Part of a generation of old-school politicians, Juncker
disarmed but often irritated ministers with his dry sense of
humour, speaking openly of having to lie about issues to the
media and discussing his problems with kidney stones.
Olli Rehn, the European commissioner for economic and
monetary affairs, praised Juncker as one of a kind.
"His shrewd and witty locker-room talk helped to boost
morale," Rehn told a news conference as Juncker bowed out,
although he will continue as Luxembourg's prime minister.
A mercurial dealmaker, Juncker was pushed to the forefront
of Europe's financial firefighting when Greece revealed in 2009
that it had lied about its borrowings and run up huge debts,
forcing Athens into a multi-billion-euro bailout.
Crafty and quick-witted, with a gravelly voice from heavy
smoking, Juncker was always the first official to brief the
media at the end of monthly Eurogroup meetings, making him one
of the most prominent communicators in the EU.
But it was a tall order for a man from a country of just
500,000 people to run arguably Europe's most important
decision-making body. He faced criticism in early 2011 when he
told a conference in Brussels he sometimes lied, telling his
audience that he favoured "secret, dark debates."
Those comments fostered a sense of disarray and prompted
France and Germany to favour creating a permanent, full-time
post, something which has not yet come to pass. Dijsselbloem
will serve for two years, although it can be renewed.
With the debt crisis calming down, the Anglophile Dutchman
indicated that Eurogroup meetings might even end earlier.
"Hopefully the economic situation of the euro area will
allow us to meet at normal hours, not very, very early in the
morning," Dijsselbloem said.
Despite complaining of the exhaustion of the job, Juncker
won credit for overseeing a series of unprecedented decisions in
2010-2012 that eventually saved Greece from insolvency and
helped stem the spreading debt contagion.
"If the Eurogroup hadn't existed before the crisis, someone
would have had to had invented it," said Andre Sapir, an
economist at Brussels-based think tank Bruegel.
Privately, EU diplomats and officials hope Dijsselbloem, who
has won plaudits for his conciliatory and straightforward style,
will help restore a sense of discipline.
The meetings have at times degenerated into unstructured
arguments in a room, some present have said. A session in
November that failed to reach agreement on how to make Greece's
debt manageable culminated in a clash between Juncker and
International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde.
But Dijsselbloem's relative inexperience - he had been
finance minister of the Netherlands barely six weeks when his
name was first floated as a Eurogroup contender - also signals
that he remains reliant on Berlin to take decisions.
Germany, Europe's biggest economy and the largest donor to
the euro zone's permanent rescue fund, is setting the agenda on
European policymaking at a time when Germany voters are
increasingly wary of bailouts for southern Europe.
"The power in elsewhere, in Berlin, and to a much lesser
extent in Paris," said Paul De Grauwe at the London School of
Economics. "This is going to be the same - an ineffectual
Eurogroup dominated by what's decided in Berlin."