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AND THEY’RE OFF: Eurogroup finance ministers have a real choice — both geographically and politically, when they meet in July to elect their president for the next two and a half years. After three applications for the role came in on Thursday, you can expect a tight race: One not-to-be-underestimated takeaway is that leading the group is still an appealing job.
WHO’S ON THE STARTING LINE: Spain’s Nadia Calviño announced her bid for the post first, Ireland’s Paschal Donohoe joined her next, before Luxembourg’s Pierre Gramegna finally threw his hat in the ring. Here are the bios and motivation letters of all three; here’s Bjarke Smith-Meyer with the news. I discussed the candidacies with ministers, politicians, officials and diplomats from all camps Thursday.
THE STATUS QUO: The least intrusive option and the only way to keep the current geographical balance in Europe’s top jobs (if that were the objective) is to choose a minister in a Socialist government in Southern Europe as a replacement for outgoing chief Mário Centeno from Portugal — himself a minister in a Socialist government in Southern Europe.
From the horse’s mouth: “In terms of the political dynamics, it will be pretty much the same,” Centeno told me in a recent interview, which I invite you to read again now. Referring to the party-politics of the race, he said: “If you look at the electoral college … of 19 ministers, you don’t see many changes from what was the situation back in 2017. It will be pretty much the same.”
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SPANISH HOPES: One diplomat suggested we view a recent personnel move as a strategic one from Calviño’s supporters: Finland’s Tuomas Saarenheimo was made boss of the Euro Working Group earlier this year — the North has its influence on the proceedings already — or that’s the message.
A Spanish woman … Calviño hails from Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Party. The PM, in a note backing his minister, correctly observed that she would be the first Spaniard and the first woman in the job. The latter is a good argument for the Twitter crowd, but the question is whether it plays as strongly to the group of finance ministers.
… and Socialist Brusseleir: Among Calviño’s strengths is that she can consider Brussels a stronghold of her candidacy and many of the inhabitants of the bubble her supporters — she’s been one herself, as a former director-general of the Commission (of the budget department). That’s topical experience.
What friends are worth: Being liked in Brussels doesn’t of course bring you votes — it may even cost you some trust. Finance ministers, structurally, want their primus, or prima inter pares, to be clear on where allegiances lie. Not with the Commission, that is. The support of Socialist colleagues such as Germany’s Olaf Scholz does bring you votes, though: The two get along well, as diplomats started to whisper in reporters’ ears months ago.
QUESTIONS OF REPRESENTATION: So, that all seems to bode well for Calviño. But she got some things working against her. While Spain is a huge economy and has never been the Eurogroup boss, Sánchez secured a top job for a minister of his own last year, when Josep Borrell was made the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs. And Luis de Guindos, a predecessor of Calviño’s as minister, may hail from the EPP, but he is nonetheless a Spanish vice president of the European Central Bank.
Ireland’s ambition and Luxembourg’s old rights: Donohoe, meanwhile, hails from the EPP, and represents a former program country, as they say — one which got a bailout. And Dublin has seen its weight increase dramatically during Brexit negotiations. Those are two reasons why getting the Eurogroup has much value for Ireland. Luxembourg, meanwhile, may have long been over-represented at the helm of the EU institutions — but that in and of itself creates some expectations.
Same Nordic pond: The two men largely share the same supporters among their peers. For Gramegna, it’ll be his second attempt to secure the Eurogroup presidency, which doesn’t exactly increase his chances. Note that Ireland’s new coalition government (and by extension its nomination) has yet to get the final green light from all parties’ bases. Members’ votes will be counted today to determine whether Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party can go into government together. If they vote down the coalition, it might turn out an even wiser move for Gramegna to have submitted his application by yesterday’s deadline.
QUESTIONS OF STYLE: People who have been in meetings with Calviño during her time in the Commission and as a minister say that she often speaks her mind. She’s not one to avoid a good discussion, which makes conversations (and interviews) with her lively and interesting. In the Eurogroup, though, not everyone likes her style, which one official described as “divisive.”
Plus: Calviño has positioned Spain as a leader of the south, and planted herself in the opposite corner from the frugal Netherlands, which is where she stayed throughout the debate about the first batch of corona measures. That won her some true fans in her own camp — and some real opponents.
Nice guys … Neither Donohoe nor Gramegna are your typical fiscal hawks. Donohoe moved away from starch Irish opposition toward, for example, a eurozone budget some time ago. (Back then, France and Germany wanted to introduce a link to tax policies.) Gramegna, of Prime Minister Xavier Bettel’s Liberals, vowed to “carefully consider all aspects in order to find the golden mean acceptable to all” if he’s elected, he wrote in his motivation letter. He has also publicly said he wouldn’t oppose changing the stability pact — softening deficit rules included.
… Unless you mention the t-word! One official said Gramegna and Donohoe “can be all very reasonable — until they talk taxation.” Which isn’t an issue the Eurogroup deals with, as gourmets of the economic and monetary union know.
... AND STRATEGY. Someone boiled it down to this: Calviño is like a southern Jeroen Dijsselbloem — an outspoken predecessor who would never shy away from picking a fight. Donohoe resembles a northern Centeno — a man always searching for compromise.