Latvia, Portugal, Slovakia bid for Eurogroup chair

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[November 30, 2017]   By Jan Strupczewski

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Finance ministers from Latvia, Portugal and Slovakia bid on Thursday to replace Jeroen Dijsselbloem as the powerful head of euro zone finance ministers, the Eurogroup, ahead of a vote next week among the 19 countries sharing the euro.

The president of the Eurogroup chairs monthly meetings of ministers and chairs the board of governors of the euro zone bailout fund which saved Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus from bankruptcy in the sovereign debt crisis.

Finance ministers Dana Reizniece-Ozola of Latvia, Mario Centeno of Portugal, and Peter Kazimir of Slovakia all submitted formal applications for the job on Thursday, officials said.

The decision is to be taken on Monday. The successful candidate must get the support of at least 10 out of the 19 finance ministers around the table. The vote of the biggest, Germany, counts the same as that of the smallest, Malta.

The current Eurogroup chairman, Dutchman Jeroen Dijsselbloem will step down on Jan 13 after two terms since 2012. He is no longer a finance minister after Dutch elections this year.

European socialists, of which Dijsselbloem is one, have been calling for the job to remain with a socialist because the European center-right already has many of the top EU jobs, such as European Commission president, the chairman of EU leaders or the head of the European Parliament.

Centeno is a socialist and has the backing of Italy, whose own finance minister Pier-Carlo Padoan also wanted the job, but dropped out because it is not certain he will stay in government after Italian elections due by May 2018.

The Harvard-educated economist has led Portugal during a strong recovery from the country's 2011-14 debt crisis and bailout. The country is growing at its fastest pace in at least a decade and the budget deficit is set to fall to its lowest in many decades.

In May, former German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble dubbed Centeno the "Ronaldo of EU finance ministers" -- a reference to the Portuguese soccer star -- as Portugal was about to exit the EU's disciplinary procedure for running excessive deficits.

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 Dutch Finance Minister and Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem arrives at Eurozone finance ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

Some in the Eurogroup say a minister from a country that had to be bailed out because of past policy mistakes would have smaller chance of getting the job. Many also say that Centeno, seen as a competent academic, has not contributed much to Eurogroup discussions in the past.

Slovakia's Kazimir, also a socialist, has run a tight fiscal ship at home and has been hawkish on bailouts for Greece. Some officials say that among socialist candidates he would have the backing of Berlin, the Netherlands and the broader center-right European People's Party (EPP).

"I don't think the EPP would support Centeno. Kazimir is more likely to get their support," one official close to the election process said.

Kazimir's critics say that he has not taken the opportunity of Slovakia's European Union presidency to drive his economic agenda harder and show leadership.

He is also seen as too fiscally rigorous by other socialists, officials said.

Reizniece-Ozola, 36, is the only female candidate and her party associates itself with the European center-right, rather than socialists, which could win her the support of center-right finance ministers. She is a chess grandmaster.

Her critics however, also mention that like in the case of Centeno, she has not been very vocal in Eurogroup meetings so far and that she had campaigned against Latvia's adoption of the euro in 2014.

In an interview with Latvian Television in March 2015 she said "she still hasnít changed her mind" about Latvia joining the euro.

(Additional reporting by Axel Bugge in Lisbon, Tatiana Jancarikovain Bratislava and Gederts Gelzis in Riga; Reporting By Jan Strupczewski Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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