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EUROPEAN UNION

Ex-French minister lands key EU leader position

France's ex-finance minister landed a coveted job in the European Commmision, officials announced on Wednesday, saying Pierre Moscovici will be the commissioner for economic affairs.

Ex-French minister lands key EU leader position
A French minister has been tapped for a key position in the European Commission. Photo: AFP

France and Britain won powerful positions on Wednesday in the new European Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker, who vowed to revive a stagnant economy, rebuild trust in Brussels and deal with threats
on the EU's borders.

Former finance minister Pierre Moscovici overcame doubts about France's finances to be named economic affairs commissioner, one of the most coveted jobs in the new regime that will run the European Union for the next five years.

Britain, whose place in the EU is under threat from a surge in euroscepticism at home, surprisingly won the financial services post it wanted for its nominee Jonathan Hill, the former head of Britain's House of Lords.

But gains for older European powers was balanced by a posts for eastern member states in a new squad of so-called super commissioners who will oversee huge policy areas.

"I am convinced it will be a winning team," said former Luxembourg prime minister Juncker, who replaces Portugal's Jose Manuel Barroso.

"This commission has the expertise you need to tackle the economic and geostrategic challenges Europe is facing."

The 28-member team — one for each EU country — must be approved by the European Parliament before starting work in November.

As the EU's executive branch, the Commission drafts laws and polices national budgets for more than half a billion people across a bloc that is the world's biggest economy when taken together.

But it faces a raft of problems including a stalling economy, deflation and unemployment, plus the crisis in Ukraine on its eastern borders.

Super-commissioners 

Germany's Guenther Oettinger was named as digital economy commissioner, Denmark's Margrethe Vestager is competition commissioner and Sweden's Cecilia Malmstroem gets trade, a job that involves fraught negotiations for a vast trade deal with the United States.

Spain's Miguel Arias Canete got the energy and climate post, a key job with the Ukraine crisis threatening gas supplies from Russia, but faces opposition from environmental groups over his role in two oil companies.

The powerful post of EU diplomatic chief went to Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini at the end of August.

Juncker's new line-up, which includes four former prime ministers and several former finance ministers, is dominated by the European centre-right political group that he is a part of.

The announcement followed months of behind-the-scenes horse-trading in Brussels, with German-backed austerity hawks up against the likes of Paris and Rome, who want to ease EU rules on public spending to give greater leeway to boost economic growth.

The socialist Moscovici in particular overcame reservations from Berlin about France's ability to meet key EU budget rules, with his appointment coming on the day that France said it would miss its deficit targets by two years.

Moscovici told reporters in Brussels: "The rules, that's my job."

Hill's post meanwhile appeared to be an olive branch to Britain, which is set to hold a referendum in 2017 on its EU membership.

London wanted the post as its financial services industry is a key sector of the British economy, despite concerns from other members which want to see the City more tightly regulated.

'Shake things up'

But Juncker pointedly said Hill and Moscovici would in effect be overseen by two hawkish "super commissioners" — Finland's Jyrki Katainen, who will cover jobs and growth, and Latvia's Valdis Dombrovskis, in charge of the euro.

Cracking jokes in a mixture of French, German and English — with a dash of Luxembourgish and Bulgarian — Juncker said a key task for his new team was winning back disillusioned voters who swung towards eurosceptic parties in European Parliament elections in May.

He said he had decided to "shake things up a bit" with his plans for the seven vice presidents who would work with the Commissioners to ensure policy was well coordinated and more easily understandable to EU citizens.

One of these, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, "will be my right hand man" as his first vice president, focusing on regulation.

Juncker added that it had been a "real challenge" to find the nine women candidates the European Parliament had demanded if it was to approve the new Commission.

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EUROPEAN UNION

The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary

The euro on Saturday marked 20 years since people began to use the single European currency, overcoming initial doubts, price concerns and a debt crisis to spread across the region.

The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary
The Euro is projected onto the walls of the European Central Bank in Brussels. Photo: Daniel Rolund/AFP

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen called the euro “a true symbol for the strength of Europe” while European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde described it as “a beacon of stability and solidity around the world”.

Euro banknotes and coins came into circulation in 12 countries on January 1, 2002, greeted by a mix of enthusiasm and scepticism from citizens who had to trade in their Deutsche marks, French francs, pesetas and liras.

The euro is now used by 340 million people in 19 nations, from Ireland to Germany to Slovakia. Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are next in line to join the eurozone — though people are divided over the benefits of abandoning their national currencies.

European Council President Charles Michel argued it was necessary to leverage the euro to back up the EU’s goals of fighting climate change and leading on digital innovation. He added that it was “vital” work on a banking union and a capital markets
union be completed.

The idea of creating the euro first emerged in the 1970s as a way to deepen European integration, make trade simpler between member nations and give the continent a currency to compete with the mighty US dollar.

Officials credit the euro with helping Europe avoid economic catastrophe during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Clearly, Europe and the euro have become inseparable,” Lagarde wrote in a blog post. “For young Europeans… it must be almost impossible to imagine Europe without it.”

In the euro’s initial days, consumers were concerned it caused prices to rise as countries converted to the new currency. Though some products — such as coffee at cafes — slightly increased as businesses rounded up their conversions, official statistics have shown that the euro has brought more stable inflation.

Dearer goods have not increased in price, and even dropped in some cases. Nevertheless, the belief that the euro has made everything more expensive persists.

New look

The red, blue and orange banknotes were designed to look the same everywhere, with illustrations of generic Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture to ensure no country was represented over the others.

In December, the ECB said the bills were ready for a makeover, announcing a design and consultation process with help from the public. A decision is expected in 2024.

“After 20 years, it’s time to review the look of our banknotes to make them more relatable to Europeans of all ages and backgrounds,” Lagarde said.

Euro banknotes are “here to stay”, she said, although the ECB is also considering creating a digital euro in step with other central banks around the globe.

While the dollar still reigns supreme across the globe, the euro is now the world’s second most-used currency, accounting for 20 percent of global foreign exchange reserves compared to 60 percent for the US greenback.

Von der Leyen, in a video statement, said: “We are the biggest player in the world trade and nearly half of this trade takes place in euros.”

‘Valuable lessons’

The eurozone faced an existential threat a decade ago when it was rocked by a debt crisis that began in Greece and spread to other countries. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus were saved through bailouts in return for austerity measures, and the euro stepped back from the brink.

Members of the Eurogroup of finance ministers said in a joint article they learned “valuable lessons” from that experience that enabled their euro-using nations to swiftly respond to fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.

As the Covid crisis savaged economies, EU countries rolled out huge stimulus programmes while the ECB deployed a huge bond-buying scheme to keep borrowing costs low.

Yanis Varoufakis, now leader of the DiEM 25 party who resigned as Greek finance minister during the debt crisis, remains a sharp critic of the euro. Varoufakis told the Democracy in Europe Movement 25 website that the euro may seem to make sense in calm periods because borrowing costs are lower and there are no exchange rates.

But retaining a nation’s currency is like “automobile assurance,” he said, as people do not know its value until there is a road accident. In fact, he charged, the euro increases the risk of having an accident.

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