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Netherlands' Dijsselbloem elected new Eurogroup head

Roddy Thomson
Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem (L) and Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker talk prior to a Eurogroup meeting on January 21, 2013 at the EU Headquarters in Brussels. Eurozone finance ministers elected Dijsselbloem to replace Juncker as chairman of the key Eurogroup, Juncker's spokesman said on Monday.

Jeroen Dijsselbloem of the Netherlands took over on Tuesday as chairman of the key eurozone finance ministers forum, despite surprise Spanish resistance.

"We appointed the Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem to become the new president of the Eurogroup," outgoing head Jean-Claude Juncker told a press conference late on Monday.

A statement said Dijsselbloem was given a 30-month term and that he "will retain his (Dutch) post whilst chairing the Eurogroup".

The decision brought to an end eight years mostly spent battling global financial headwinds that morphed into the eurozone debt crisis for Luxembourg Prime Minister Juncker, Europe's longest-serving national leader.

Dijsselbloem will immediately face fresh scrutiny at talks between all 27 European Union finance ministers starting at 0900 GMT on Tuesday, with the Netherlands sitting out a bid by 11 eurozone states to launch a tax on financial transactions.

The 46-year-old Dutchman said it was "a distinct honour to be given the possibility to succeed Jean-Claude", adding that it was key to "preserve the social European model that we so much cherish".

Only appointed nationally in November, Dijsselbloem had made a flying visit to Madrid on Thursday night after announcing his lone candidacy earlier that day in the Dutch parliament.

After his election, he said that Spanish Finance Minister Luis De Guindos maintained Madrid would "work with me in a very professional and positive way", brushing aside concerns that almost all the top eurozone posts are now held by nationals of Triple A-rated members.

Firm backer and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said the nomination was "a good decision", while European Union president Herman Van Rompuy said that all 17 eurozone national leaders were fully behind Dijsselbloem.

"I am confident that he is the right choice and I wish him every success in his work and look forward to cooperating closely with him," Van Rompuy, who will chair summits of the eurozone, said in a statement.

Juncker had admitted on his way into the Brussels talks feelings of "melancholy" and "relief" ahead of the handover.

With tensions notably eased on markets compared to six months ago when worries were rife about a Greek exit from the euro, or Spain and Italy being forced into bailouts, Dijsselbloem said his job was all about "further restoring trust in the euro and the eurozone", freeing politicians to focus on policies that can help foster "growth and jobs".

The eurozone is currently labouring under a high unemployment rate of almost 12 percent.

In his submission addressed to counterparts, seen by AFP, Dijsselbloem said: "Our economic policies need to be geared towards promoting strong, sustainable and inclusive economic growth, ensuring fiscal discipline, enhancing competitiveness and boosting employment, and in particular youth employment".

That assessment chimed with those of top economists.

"Markets are no longer betting that the European Central Bank will commit suicide by letting major member countries implode," said Holger Schmieding of Germany's Berenberg Bank.

Even Greece, despite a sixth year of recession, is said by its public creditors to be on the mend.

However, there was little clarity on key eurozone issues going forward, such as a bailout for Cyprus first requested in the summer but now seen as increasingly in jeopardy.

Originally expected to lead the agenda here, a formal request for aid from Nicosia appears to have gone backwards with the long shadow of Russian money-laundering hanging over negotiations.

Schaeuble even questioned whether any bailout should even take place.

"We have to examine whether the problems in Cyprus represent a danger for the eurozone as a whole. That is one of the pre-conditions for the money coming from the euro rescue fund," he told a German daily in the run-up to the talks.

French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici warned that "we can't just resign ourselves to a Europe caught in a spiral of austerity and recession".