Dijsselbloem, left, with Spanish rival de Guindos during a eurogroup meeting in December
The second quarter of 2015 will not only bring a crescendo in the ongoing Greek crisis for the 19 eurozone finance ministers who make up the eurogroup, which must ultimately decide whether Athens gets the bailout funds it needs to avoid bankruptcy. It will also trigger something nearly as closely-watched by EU insiders: an active race to head the group.
Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister who was the surprise pick to preside over the powerful committee when he was plucked from obscurity just weeks after national elections pushed his party into government in late 2012, will see his two-and-a-half year term end in July.
Unusually for such high-profile EU posts, both Dijsselbloem and his leading challenger, Spanish finance minister Luis de Guindos, have publicly declared their interest in the job. Indeed, de Guindos received a very public, full-throated endorsement from his prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, at last month’s EU summit in Brussels.
Although the politicking hasn’t really begun in earnest yet – the group is somewhat preoccupied with Greece at the moment – the Brussels Blog has talked to a handful of insiders to gauge where the race stands. Most believe it will come down to a political showdown between the EU’s two main pan-European party groups, the centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Party of European Socialists.
Here’s how most are handicapping it now – plus a few dark horses who could emerge if the two men cancel each other out. Read more
Protesters outside the Greek finance ministry in Athens during a visit by the troika in 2013
Among the issues plaguing deliberations over the way forward on Greece’s bailout is how the country’s international creditors can verify its economic and fiscal situation without sending monitors to Athens– which would look very much like the return of the hated “troika”.
Alexis Tsipras, the new Greek prime minister, has declared the death of the troika – which is made up of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – but for now, the troika isn’t really dead. The re-branded “institutions” must still evaluate Greece’s reform programme and give it a signoff before any of the remaining €7.2bn in bailout can be disbursed.
But the new Greek government has resisted anyone from the “institutions” showing up in Athens; they were originally supposed to show up this week, but officials said Greek authorities blocked the visit. In a letter Thursday to Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister and eurogroup president, Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister, suggested an alternative to a return of “the institutions” to Athens: have them meet in Brussels instead. Wrote Varoufakis:
As for the location of the technical meetings and fact finding and fact-exchange sessions, the Greek government’s view is that they ought to take place in Brussels.
But Dijsselbloem’s response to Varoufakis on Friday, in a letter obtained by the Brussels Blog, suggests officials from the “institutions” may be showing up in Athens after all. Wrote Dijsselbloem: Read more
Dijsselbloem, left, speaks with Varoufakis during a finance ministers' meeting in February
During a 45-minute interview in his Dutch finance ministry office in The Hague, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, chairman of the eurogroup, offered up a detailed recounting of his month-long negotiations with Athens to secure last week’s agreement extending Greece’s €172bn bailout by four months – as well as his views of what might come next.
Portions of that interview have been be published on the Financial Times website here and here, but as is our normal practice at the Brussels Blog, we thought we’d offer up a more complete transcript of the interview since some of it – including previously undisclosed details about the three eurogroup meetings needed to reach a deal – was left on the cutting room floor and may be of interest to those following the Greek crisis closely. The transcript has been edited very slightly to eliminate cross-talk and shorten occasionally long-winded questions from the interviewer.
The interview started on Dijsselbloem’s decision to travel to Athens to meet Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras just days after the January 25 elections – a visit that was overshadowed by a tension-filled press conference between Dijsselbloem and his Greek counterpart, Yanis Varoufakis, which spurred a market sell-off: Read more
Are the Dutch attempting to lead a mutiny on bank reform? It is hard to tell whether the objections are serious enough to unravel the deal last week on the EU rules for handling a bank crisis. But something mildly rebellious is certainly afoot. And it could end in another golden-gloves showdown between Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister, and his Swedish sparring partner Anders Borg.
At issue is the draft deal on the bank recovery and resolution directive (BRRD), which was agreed between negotiators for the European parliament and EU member states on Wednesday, brining to a close months of difficult talks. The reforms give all EU countries a rulebook at national level to handle a bank in trouble and, if necessary, bail-in creditors to help foot the bill.
The Dutch, however, are unimpressed. They think the draft agreement offers too much freedom to governments wanting bailout banks with public money, rather than impose losses on bondholders. And it looks like they have a significant number of allies. Read more
Sweden's Borg, centre, during last night's meeting, where he sparred with his Dutch counterpart
It’s become something of a routine in the EU’s ongoing effort to build a “banking union” that finance ministers try to come to a deal at their normal Brussels meetings – only to fail and call a special emergency session at the 11th hour before a crucial summit.
It happened last December when ministers held a last-minute emergency meeting to agree a new EU supervisor for all eurozone banks; it happened again in June to get to a deal on rules for how much creditors should lose when a bank fails. After yesterday’s 15-hour marathon on a new EU bank resolution authority, ministers will now have one last shot next Wednesday before the last EU summit of the year begins the next day.
The hold-up this time is a dispute over how a new EU-wide bank rescue fund should function. And if anyone is looking for evidence of how much work still needs to be done, consider these two documents which were circulated among finance ministers late last night – one here outlining an emergency backup to the fund and another here on a new treaty to set up the fund. Both are almost completely substance free, meaning a lot must be done before Wednesday. Read more
Dijsselbloem, right, meeting Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras in Athens this morning.
As part of the big Franco-German deal announced last night in Paris, President François Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel took everyone by surprise by announcing they now want a permanent head of the so-called eurogroup, the committee of 17 eurozone finance ministers that does all the heavy lifting on regional economic policy, including bailouts.
The timing of the agreement (it’s on page 8 of the nine-page “contribution”, which we’ve posted here) is a bit awkward, since a new part-time eurogroup chairman was appointed just six months ago: Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem.
Most EU officials view the deal as more an effort at Franco-German rapprochement than an attempt to force Dijsselbloem out, despite the fact he has stirred controversy in his short tenure in the job. As one senior official put it, agreeing to language that eurozone reforms “could include” a permanent eurogroup chair “is not exactly ousting someone”.
We here at Brussels Blog asked the FT’s man in Amsterdam, Matt Steinglass, to send us the reaction from Dijsselbloem’s homeland:
There is surprise and a bit of resentment. Dijsselbloem was forced to issue a hasty statement that he did not support the move and would not accept the position if it meant he could no longer serve as finance minister.
Dijsselbloem, centre, at a press conference Monday announcing the €10bn Cyprus bailout.
The joint FT-Reuters interview with Dutch finance minister and eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem after the all-night talks to secure Cyprus’ €10bn bailout has caused a lot of discussion and debate. Dijsselbloem issued a statement after we published saying Cyprus is “a specific case with exceptional challenges” and that “no models or templates” will be used in the future.
To clarify what Dijsselbloem said, we’ve decided to post a transcript of the portion of the interview dealing with how the eurozone might deal with bank failures in the future in light of the Cyprus example.
The interview we conducted alongside Brussels bureau chief Luke Baker of Reuters lasted about 45 minutes, and the portion on bank resolution lasted for about 10 of those minutes. The interview started out with some Cyprus-specific questions – like how capital controls might work, whether Dijsselbloem had learned any lessons form the Cyprus experience – and then shifted to a discussion about whether north-south relations were hampering EU decision making.
That’s when Baker asked the first question about whether Cyprus set a precedent for future bank rescues:
Q: To what extent does the decision taken last night end up setting a template for bank resolution going forward?
A: What we should try to do and what we’ve done last night is what I call “pushing back the risks”. In times of crisis when a risk certainly turns up in a banking sector or an economy, you really have very little choice: you try to take that risk away, and you take it on the public debt. You say, “Okay, we’ll deal with it, give it to us.”