Northern Europe Gets a Scolding ; Departing Official Warns against Painting South as Less Financially Virtuous

By Kanter, James | International Herald Tribune, January 11, 2013 | Go to article overview

Northern Europe Gets a Scolding ; Departing Official Warns against Painting South as Less Financially Virtuous


Kanter, James, International Herald Tribune


Jean-Claude Juncker, the departing leader of the group of ministers who oversee the euro, sharply criticized northern Europeans on Thursday for demanding austerity budgets from their southern neighbors.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the departing leader of the group of ministers who oversee the euro currency, sharply criticized northern Europeans on Thursday for demanding austerity budgets from their southern neighbors.

But in the same speech he seemed to endorse as his successor an official from the Netherlands, one of countries that has made the toughest demands for fiscal rigor in the euro zone.

Mr. Juncker, himself a northern European and prime minister of Luxembourg, told members of the European Parliament's influential Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee that northerners had falsely painted themselves as more economically virtuous than southerners. "I'm totally against this distinction," he said.

Mr. Juncker warned that some members of his own country's Parliament had become fed up with "the German diktat," and he said countries making painful economic adjustments should be rewarded for their efforts.

"We have been arrogant" toward countries like Greece, he said.

Still, Mr. Juncker said his successor as head of the Eurogroup of ministers would speak one of the languages of the Benelux, a grouping that includes Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Mr. Juncker's comments were characteristically cryptic, but appeared to lend weight to the chances of the front-runner for the job, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister.

The president of the Eurogroup plays a coordinating role among finance ministers when they make critical decisions like giving political approval for bailouts or pressuring governments to shore up their finances to preserve the stability of the euro. Mr. Juncker has held the post since 2005; although his term expired last summer, he indicated he would stay on for a limited time until a successor was named.

At a news conference Thursday, Mr. Juncker said a decision on his successor should be made on, or shortly after, Jan. 21, because that would be the last meeting of the Eurogroup at which he would serve as president.

Although the president of the Eurogroup is supposed to be elected by ministers, as a practical matter is decided by consensus among governments, opening the way for political horse-trading.

Mr. Dijsselbloem's candidacy gained strength in recent weeks partly because he comes from a country that still holds a triple-A debt rating, making him a natural ally of Germany. But his candidacy is more problematic for the French, the other major power in the euro area.

The government led by President Francois Hollande has emphasized giving the most vulnerable members of the euro area the leeway to make painful economic adjustments. By contrast, the Netherlands, along with Germany and Finland, has pressed indebted nations like Greece and Portugal to tighten their belts, despite the recessionary effect on their economies. …

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