Europe's stronghold in the face of the economic crisis, the eurogroup has grown under the EU's stability pact. But protecting the euro is a tough job, and now its top official has called for a replacement.
After yet another eurozone crisis management meeting drew to a close, eurogroup chief, Jean-Claude Juncker, looked out from behind his round glasses to face another round of questioning from journalists.
But the European politician who since 2005 has been affectionately known as "Mister Euro," decided he was not interested in seeking a fifth term in office. A replacement for the 57-year-old, who is also prime minister of Luxembourg, is on the agenda for the eurogroup's meeting on Monday in Brussels.
Juncker's is just one of many posts that heads of state and government have had to consider. Three more positions will also need to be filled soon: head the European Stability Mechanism, the EU's bailout fund; a new member for the board of executives at the European Central Bank; and the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Rife with political pitfalls
Juncker has, for some time, been regarded as ready to leave office, having complained of his unsatisfactorily remunerated jobs. As the head of the eurogroup it has fallen on him to explain the dangers of the ongoing economic crisis, while evading the domestic political wrangling of the common currency's 17 members.
Luxembourg's prime minister has shown himself to be willing to take on both Germany and France when it comes to euro policy. Criticizing the view that the Berlin-Paris duo decide on eurozone policy he said, "Why do people think it's enough for Germany and France to agree? We deal with 17 governments, with 17 nations, with 17 parliaments. You don't see that anywhere else."
The head of the eurogroup is an ideal position for an engaged European politician. The body - which is constituted of the 17 finance minister of the eurozone as well as the EU's Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, the president of the European Central Bank and as other high-ranking EU officials - is responsible for holding together the many strings of tax, economic and currency policies. It also monitors the 17 members' budgetary policy and the euro states' public finances.
The eurogroup is officially a forum for dialogue and political discussions without any actual decision-making powers, as all legal power lies with the EU's council of economics and finance ministers (ECOFIN) from all 27 European Union nations.
Europe's second-most important body
But as the financial and economic crisis progressed, the eurogroup has won massive influence, according to Daniela Schwarzer of the German Institute of International and Security Affairs. She said the "political substance" of what the council of 27 finance minister decide is hashed out during eurogroup meetings.
For Guntram Wolff of the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, the group has become the second-most important body after the EU's summits of heads of state and government.
"In practical terms, the eurogroup has gained in strength compared to the ECOFIN council since it's the place where the many issues that affect the eurozone are discussed and then more or less receive the blessing of the ECOFIN council," Wolff said.
It was also up to the eurogroup to address the pressing problems of the sovereign debt crisis affecting its members.
"This has shown that this little body has the power to build a consensus," Schwarzer said, adding that the decisions for an initial bailout of Greece and the first European rescue mechanism were discussed by the group.
Schwarzer and Wolff agree that the Euro Group could continue gaining in influence, but in future it is going to be necessary to ensure increased cooperation among members. The body is subject to a variety of economic points of view and the ministers in it come from a variety of political cultures.
"We cannot expect the economic and finance ministers from 17 countries to suddenly all agree," Schwarzer said, adding that the body's decision to meet behind closed doors was a benefit to open discussion. "It gives people there a chance to deal with conflicts and sound out possible compromises."
Author: Ralf Bosen / sms
Editor: Gregg Benzow