The price of the eurogroup chair

Finding a suitable person to chair EU meetings is very difficult. No wonder Germany wanted Jeroen Dijsselbloem. But he may not be the best choice as far as the Netherlands is concerned, writes Adriaan Schout.

As the problems surrounding the euro demonstrate, the EU has no shared values and this is what makes leading the eurogroup such a difficult task. With only seven banknotes, even choosing who should be on them almost proved too much. Erasmus was too Dutch and too protestant. Jean Monnet was a technocrat, known only to a handful of Europhiles and French to boot.

The banknotes ended up sporting the feeblest symbols of unity possible: bridges and windows. And even those wonders of European architecture had to be fictitious so as not to insult the pride of any of the member states. The euro had to become the portable symbol of our common future but has ended up as the symbol of our lack of common values.

European leadership is about building bridges but with so many different values, interests and cultures leadership is almost impossible. Chairmen have to be honest brokers and marry subtle leadership to neutrality.

Leading the eurogroup is probably the greatest challenge of all because it is there that the member states fight over issues and where the preparation of sensitive EU council files takes place. The eurogroup is characterised by a north-south divide, doesn’t agree on the role of the ECB and also has to discuss the reform programmes agreed upon between debt-ridden and triple A countries.

As Juncker’s record shows, it is very easy for a chairman to get into trouble with Merkel or other leaders about the need for euro bonds.


The Netherlands was very pleased when Dijsselbloem got picked for a leading role. The Dutch, frustrated at not being able to play with the big boys (and forgetting that chairmen like Juncker, Barroso and Van Rompuy are all from small countries) were placated. The papers made much of the fact that the chairman would be extremely well-informed and therefore able to influence the outcome of negotiations. But this advantage shouldn’t be overestimated.

Van Rompuy has shown that he isn’t always very well-informed. France and Germany seem to be perfectly capable of communicating directly. We have seen him present presidential documents only to retract them when France and Germany presented their documents and agendas hours later. Not only is he completely overruled, he is also completely ignored when the member states feel like it. Van Rompuy has shown himself to be extremely amenable (IMF yes or no, flexibility in Deauville yes or no, a flexible sixpack yes or no) and uncomplaining when the real power blocks take over his tasks.

Worse still, the (economic and financial) cost for the Netherlands and therefore the euro, could be considerable. If Dijsselbloem is impartial he will get into trouble with Germany and other EU countries. Compromises are never seen as impartial. And if there is anything that matters to the Netherlands it’s a good relationship with Germany. As Juncker’s experience has shown, leading the eurogroup carries with it a big political risk when it comes to preserving the friendship.


It will also be difficult to defend Dutch interests. After the decision to support the Spanish banks via the ESM, the Dutch, Germans and Fins met to thrash out the details. This post-hoc redefinition of such decisions is always necessary as ministerial meetings do not set down details. The Netherlands can no longer take part in these meetings because as chairman it can’t be seen to undermine its own work. As the devil is in the details, the Netherlands as a triple A country may lose what influence it has.

The process of democratic accountability will also change. The nature of the parliamentary discussions preceding important meetings of the eurogroup or the European Council will change. Dijsselbloem, in constant contact with eurozone politicians, possesses much confidential information which he is not at liberty to disclose during the parliamentary debates.

Apart from the political cost, the chairmanship also means the Netherlands has to put its own house in order, a difficult enough task under any circumstances. It would have been better to give the chair to a country that is already showing the financial markets it is eager to reform. Ireland would have been a good choice.

Ministers come and go. Juncker hung on for almost ten years. Dutch governments last about two years on average. Giving the chairmanship to ministers in function carries the risk of lots of different faces in the chair and periods in which the chair could be empty. This can be prevented by choosing a professional chairman. Olli Rehn will be available from 2014.


Adriaan Schout is Deputy Director Research Europe at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael


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