Eurogroup, Looking Past Period of Crisis, Picks New Leader From Portugal

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A Portuguese economist will be the new leader of the group that manages crises for the eurozone, a sign that the region’s officials may be ready to leave behind an era during which the euro often appeared to be on the brink of collapse.

The choice on Monday of Mário Centeno, Portugal’s finance minister, as the Eurogroup’s next president reflects a change in the body’s focus. The move could signal that austerity policies imposed on struggling countries like Greece are nearing an end, and that rather than simply trying to survive, the 19 finance ministers who make up the Eurogroup are debating how to make the bloc less susceptible to future crises.

The election of Mr. Centeno, which was widely expected, carried particular symbolic weight because he is from one of the countries hardest hit by a debt crisis that began in 2010. He succeeds Jeroen Dijsselbloem, a Dutch official who was closely allied with Germany and the northern European countries that insisted Greece and other debt-plagued eurozone members make huge spending cuts to pensions, unemployment benefits and other programs in order to qualify for aid.

The center of gravity on the Eurogroup was already shifting after the departure of Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister who was the group’s dominant member and a leading advocate for austerity policies. Mr. Schäuble resigned in October to become president of the German Parliament.

The Eurogroup’s importance grew substantially during Mr. Dijsselbloem’s tenure. The group became the venue for eurozone members to debate how to help nations like Cyprus address bank-system failures, a looming Greek default on government debt, and severe economic downturns across the region.

“There were a number of very difficult moments,” Mr. Dijsselbloem said on Monday. Referring to a Eurogroup decision in 2013 to force depositors to share in losses by Cypriot banks, he said that he “would be the first to reflect that my communication at the time could be better, but in substance I think we took the right decisions.”

It is unlikely that Mr. Centeno could have been elected as Eurogroup president a few years ago. At that point, Portugal was in the midst of a deep economic crisis and there were doubts about whether the country could pay its debts and remain in the eurozone. There were bitter fights within the Eurogroup about how much aid to provide to the crisis countries and how much pain they should be made to endure.

The eurozone has recovered strongly since then. Every country in the bloc is growing, and there is no longer talk of the common currency disintegrating. There is, however, general agreement that eurozone countries must do more to prevent crises, for example by creating a permanent fund akin to the International Monetary Fund that could be used to help stricken members.

Mr. Centeno, 50, will soon be responsible for leading the Eurogroup as it grapples with those issues.

He earned a doctorate in economics from Harvard in 2000 and has focused his academic research on the functioning of labor markets. Before becoming finance minister, he was deputy head of the research department at the Banco de Portugal, the country’s central bank.

“Centeno is the anti-Schäuble among Europe’s finance ministers,” Sven Giegold, a member of the European Parliament from the Green Party, said in a statement on Monday. Mr. Giegold, who is German, said that Mr. Centeno, in his role as Portugal’s finance minister, had resisted pressure to cut pensions and had argued that austerity was not the right way to help a country in crisis.

At a news conference in Brussels on Monday, Mr. Centeno, who will assume the new post in January, deflected a question about his views on austerity. He said he planned to manage by consensus. “This is the only way that Europe has advanced in the past and the only way it will advance in the future,” he said.

His predecessor, Mr. Dijsselbloem, was never as reviled in Greece as Mr. Schäuble. Still, Greeks viewed Mr. Dijsselbloem as an agent of Germany; for that reason, he was neither trusted by, nor popular with, Greeks.

Alexis Tsipras, the left-wing politician who is Greece’s prime minister, called Mr. Centeno’s election “very promising.” In an interview with the Portuguese newspaper Diário de Notícias, Mr. Tsipras said he hoped that Mr. Centeno would make the Eurogroup’s deliberations more transparent.

“At the Eurogroup, decisions were made without minutes being taken, without us knowing details about what was discussed,” Mr. Tsipras said. “In the end the decision was what the German finance minister, Mr. Schäuble, wanted to do.”

Mr. Centeno hinted that he would push for more openness. “It’s very important to build a eurozone that is resilient,” he said, “and responds to the ultimate stakeholders, who are European citizens.”

Greece was again on the agenda at the Eurogroup meeting Monday. The finance ministers endorsed measures designed to reduce Greece’s vulnerability to rising interest rates.