Olli Rehn

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

José Bové, campaigning in France last year

Before coming to the European parliament in 2009, José Bové was best known as the French sheep farmer who demolished a McDonald’s near his hometown of Milau and was later jailed for destroying a crop of genetically modified rice.

But as of today, the anti-globalisation crusader with a trademark Asterix moustache can add another achievement to his curriculum vitae: the Green party’s candidate for president of the European Commission.

After a three-month online primary, Bové and Ska Keller, a 32-year-old German MEP, received the most votes and will run as co-candidates for the EU’s most high-profile job. Keller, who received 11,791 of the 22,676 votes cast through the Greens’ website, actually edged out Bové, who won 11,726. Read more

Verhofstadt, right, with his centre-right counterpart in the European parliament, Joseph Daul

Despite the hopes advocates had for a full-scale political campaign for European Commission president this year, the contest thus far has been a rather staid affair: German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, the European parliament president, sewed up the centre-left’s nomination unopposed and nobody yet has formally thrown their hat in the ring on the centre-right.

The one place where an all-out race is underway, however, is among the centrist Liberals, where two high-profile candidates – Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister and Liberal leader in the European parliament, and Olli Rehn, the Finnish economic chief on the European Commission – are locked in a neck-and-neck fight to become the party’s presidential candidate.

The chance of the Liberals – whose two largest parties, the British Liberal Democrats and the German Free Democrats, are expected to take a drubbing in May’s European elections – actually getting the Commission presidency job are slim. But that hasn’t stopped Rehn and Verhofstadt from engaging in a spirited battle ahead of the party voting, which opens January 24 and ends February 1.

Olli Rehn

The latest salvo is over Verhofstadt’s desire to have a two-man debate, which Rehn has apparently refused to participate in. According to an internal party email sent to the two men yesterday and obtained by Brussels Blog (and posted here), a Liberal party leader – whose name has been redacted – says the Rehn team has begged off:

I have this afternoon been informed that it will not be possible for you, Olli, to commit to such a debate by today’s deadline. I have therefore no option than to cancel our plans for a debate and propose to move to our alternative proposed solution, that I have previously communicated to both of you, which is the separate Q&A sessions by each nominee to be webstreamed.

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Rehn, left, with President José Manuel Barroso at Wednesday's press conference

It may have appeared that Olli Rehn, the EU’s economic chief, today was siding with Washington in the going transatlantic tussle over Germany’s current account surplus by launching an inquiry into whether the surplus was harming growth in the rest of Europe.

But Rehn went out of his way to make clear that he was no fan of the US Treasury department report that pushed the dispute into overdrive last month.

Speaking at a press conference announcing the European Commission’s decision to launch the “in-depth review” of Germany’s surplus, Rehn said the US Treasury’s report was “to my taste somewhat simplified and too straight forward”. Read more

Rehn, right, consults with Germany's Wolfgang Schäuble at last month's IMF meetings.

Over the last few weeks, the normally über-dismal science of German economic policymaking has unexpectedly become stuff of international diplomatic brinkmanship, after the US Treasury department accused Berlin of hindering eurozone and global growth by suppressing domestic demand at a time its economy is growing on the backs of foreigners buying German products overseas.

The accusation not only produced the expected counterattack in Berlin, but has become the major debating point among the economic commentariat. Our own Martin Wolf, among others, has taken the side of Washington and our friend and rival Simon Nixon over at the Wall Street Journal today has backed the Germans.

Now comes the one voice that actually can do something about it: Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s economic tsar who just made his views known in a blog post on his website. Why should Rehn’s views take precedence? Thanks to new powers given to Brussels in the wake of the eurozone crisis, he can force countries to revise their economic policies – including an oversized current account surplus – through something soporifically known as the Macroeconomic Imbalance Procedure.

On Wednesday, Rehn will announce his decision on whether Germany will be put in the dock for exactly what the US has been accusing it of: building up a current account surplus at the expense of its trading partners. And if Rehn’s blog post is any indication, he’s heading in exactly that direction. Read more

Moscovici, left, and Rehn at press conference where Rehn held the new French budget aloft

After an hour-long meeting this afternoon up in Olli Rehn’s office in the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters, Rehn and Pierre Moscovici, the French finance minister, wandered down to a crowded press area to make the expected enthusiastic noises about Paris’s economic reform effort.

But what might be most noticeable about the appearance was not what was said but what was done: Moscovici handed over a copy of France’s 2014 budget, which he had unveiled in Paris just yesterday.

“Pierre has given me the draft budget law for 2014 for France,” Rehn said, holding aloft the document, marked “Projet de Loi de Finances 2014” on the cover. “This is the real spirit of governance at the European level.”

To the uninitiated, the display might have appeared to be a bit of empty symbolism, a courtesy Moscovici was paying to the perpetually besieged Rehn. But there was nothing symbolic about the handover. This year, for the first time in EU history, every eurozone member must submit its national budget to Rehn’s office for review within the next two weeks – before they are debated by national parliaments. Read more

Rehn: critics of Cyprus bailout are "comparing apples with pears and coming up with oranges."

During a debate in the European Parliament this morning, Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s economic chief, got roughed up by MEPs lambasting the handling of the €10bn Cypriot bailout by the so-called “troika” of international lenders, of which the Commission is a member.

Jean-Paul Gauzés, the French conservative who led the debate for centre-right parties, called it “disastrous”; his centre-left counterpart, Austrian Hannes Swoboda, dubbed it “neo-colonial” and called on Rehn to disband the troika altogether.

In his response, Rehn chose instead to focus on remarks by Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian Green, who questioned why the size of Cyprus’ funding needs had risen by €6bn over the nine days between the first botched bailout agreement and the second, final deal struck the following weekend:

A month before this famous weekend, €17bn was necessary in order to render Cypriot debt sustainable. Now we found at last week it’s €23bn. Just a slight mistake, a comma here or there. Those who carry out the forecasts and estimates for you, are they incompetent…or was it: well, we’ll play around with the figures to make sure reality looks better than it really is?

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Rehn's remarks in London last month appear to be the crux of the dispute with Krugman.

Just when you thought the war of words between Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman and European Commission economic chief Olli Rehn had died down, the normally level-headed Finn has hit back at the Princeton academic in an interview with his home country’s largest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat.

In the interview, Rehn in essence accuses Krugman of lying, insisting the economist criticised him for things he never actually said. “Krugman put words in my mouth that would be termed in the Finnish parliament a ‘modified truth’,” Rehn said in the interview. The newspaper helpfully notes that “modified truth” is the Finnish parliament’s polite terminology for lying.

Rehn also takes a little dig at Krugman’s use of Monty Python to defend himself. After a deluge of attacks from European Commission officials last week, Krugman noted he never made personal attacks on Rehn – only on his policies – writing: “I never asserted that Mr Rehn’s mother was a hamster and his father smelt of elderberries.”

To the uninitiated, the line is from a famous scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where a French soldier played by John Cleese taunts King Arthur, played by the late Graham Chapman, with those very words.

“We should perhaps be grateful to Mr Krugman for his generosity in promising at least not to compare my recently-deceased mother to a hamster,” Rehn deadpanned in the interview. Read more

Rehn during last month's presentation of the Commission's winter economic forecasts.

Following yesterday’s barrage from the European Commission, Princeton economist Paul Krugman today ratcheted up his criticism of the way policy is made in Brussels, arguing that the attacks demonstrate EU officials are more “focused on defending their dignity from sharp-tongued economists” than on getting economic policy right.

Krugman’s latest fusillade, titled “Of Cockroaches and Commissioners”, notes that despite the occasionally personal nature of the attacks against him from the Berlaymont, he never made a personal attack on Olli Rehn, the Commission’s economic chief:

What you would never grasp from those outraged tweets is that all my criticisms have been substantive. I never asserted that Mr. Rehn’s mother was a hamster and his father smelt of elderberries; I pointed out that he has been promising good results from austerity for years, without changing his rhetoric a bit despite ever-rising unemployment, and that his response to studies suggesting larger adverse effects from austerity than he and his colleagues had allowed for was to complain that such studies undermine confidence.

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Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, during a visit to Brussels in 2009.

Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has in recent weeks emerged as something of a bête noir for EU economic chief Olli Rehn, singling out the understated Finn as the symbol of the austerity-led eurozone crisis response that Krugman blames for exacerbating Europe’s economic recession.

Last week, after “browsing through the collected speeches of Olli Rehn”, who he declares “the face of denialism when it comes to the effects of austerity”, he criticised the European Commission vice president for arguing that budgetary tightening is the reason for the recent eurozone market calm, when Krugman believes it was more European Central Bank action.

That followed a particularly nasty attack a few days earlier at what Krugman labelled a “Rehn of Terror”, saying that Rehn’s repeated predictions that economic growth was returning was misleading – and taking Rehn to task for a letter to EU finance ministers in which he said the recent academic debate over austerity and growth “has not been helpful”. Read more

Timo Soini, the True Finns leader, is in a face-off with his fellow Finn, the EU's Olli Rehn.

It’s been a rough few weeks for Olli Rehn, the European commissioner in charge of economic affairs.

Last month, a Belgian minister lashed out at him for demanding the new government cut up to €2bn from its 2012 budget. Then he was forced to spend all of Monday night and Tuesday morning locked in a 14-hour session with eurozone finance ministers negotiating Greece’s bail-out. And today he had the unenviable task of announcing the eurozone would likely return to recession this year.

But if you really want to make the mild-mannered Finn angry, it appears you have to go another route: compare him Nicolay Bobrikov, the Russian general who ruled Finland in the early 20th century, before it gained independence. Read more

Finn Olli Rehn, last week in Davos, has been seen on Finnish media by 45% of his fellow countrymen.

In Brussels, being a member of the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, is about as high as an official can climb in the eurocracy. But just how well are those Brussels luminaries known back in their home countries?

Thanks to the commission itself, we now have a good idea. According to a telephone survey conducted by Eurobarometer – the results of which haven’t been published, but were presented to commissioners during a meeting Tuesday – the best-known is Finland’s Olli Rehn, the economic commissioner who has been in the press almost constantly thanks to the eurozone crisis. He also contemplated running for president of Finland last year, which undoubtedly helped boost his score.

According to the survey, obtained by Brussels Blog, 45 per cent of Finns said they had seen or heard Rehn in the media, far ahead of the rest of the commission – including its president, Portugal’s José Manuel Barroso, who finished 9th with 31 per cent of Portuguese respondents saying they’ve seen the former prime minister on local media.

At the bottom of the list were commissioners from two of the largest member states: France’s Michel Barnier, who only 8 per cent of French respondents said they had heard or seen, and Britain’s Cathy Ashton, who came in at 16 per cent.

The complete list after the jump. Read more

New York Stock Exchange on August 4, 2011. Image by AFP

In a sign of the severity of this week’s market turbulence, Olli Rehn, Europe’s economics commissioner, has cut short his holiday and will be back in Brussels today. Rehn is to address the press corps at midday – presumably to undo some of the damage caused by an explosive letter penned by his boss, José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president.

In his letter – which was sent to the eurozone heads of government on Wednesday, but released to the press on Thursday – Barroso acknowledged that the big decisions taken at a eurozone summit on July 21 were not having the intended effect on financial markets. He also called for a “rapid reassessment” of the eurozone’s €440bn bailout fund just two weeks after leaders had armed it with new weapons following a torturous, months-long debate. Read more

Olli Rehn, the European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs

The debate in the Greek parliament has begun, and pressure is building ahead of the key meeting of eurozone finance ministers on Sunday which – in the event of parliament’s passage of a new €28bn austerity plan – will both approve a quick €12bn in aid to Athens and set up the outlines for second Greek bail-out package. Read more

One of the unwritten rules of a financial panic seems to be that the more severe a crisis is, the more scripted and repetitive public officials become.  Read more

When they announced their provisional rescue package for Greece on Sunday, European officials pointed not only to its size – at least €30bn- but also its details. For euros and details are what the markets have been demanding these last frustrating weeks. Read more

As with many things involving the European Parliament, there is an air of unreality about this week’s confirmation hearings of the nominees to the next European Commission.  It would be entirely mistaken to think that the process bears much resemblance to the kind of rigorous hearings that presidential appointees are obliged to undergo in the US Senate.  To judge from the proceedings so far in Brussels, the questions asked in the European Parliament’s committees are far less probing, and the nominees are able to get away with answers that are at best platitudinous, at worst utterly incoherent.

There are some honourable exceptions.  The best performance has been that of Belgium’s Karel De Gucht, the EU trade commissioner-designate, who wasn’t afraid to speak frankly about his opposition to a carbon border tax, a policy favoured among others by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.  Equally authoritative were Spain’s Joaquín Almunia, who will run the important competition portfolio, and Finland’s Olli Rehn, responsible for economic and monetary affairs.  This trio looks set to be the powerhouse of the next Commission, along with France’s Michel Barnier, the internal market commissioner-designate. Read more

Enlargement of the European Union is, almost imperceptibly, moving forward once more.  EU foreign ministers are expected next week to forward Albania’s membership application to the European Commission for an opinion.  This is a necessary technical step on the path to entry – small, but important.

The Commission is already preparing opinions on the applications of Iceland and Montenegro.  The opinions will take quite some time to deliver – longer for Albania and Montenegro than for Iceland – but the machinery is now in motion. Read more

To follow up on Monday’s blog, in which I suggested it was extremely unlikely that Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini would achieve his ambition of becoming the European Union’s next foreign policy chief, the obvious question is – well, who will get the job?

Three names keep cropping up.  One is Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a Dutchman who has served as Nato’s secretary-general since 2004 and who is about to be replaced by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister.  The second is Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, who is another ex-premier.  The third is Olli Rehn, a Finn who is the EU’s enlargement commissioner. Read more