Eurogroup bids farewell to mercurial Jean-Claude Juncker, heralds new era

It started as an informal dinner among European finance ministers more than 14 years ago and has steadily gained prominence under its veteran president, Jean-Claude Juncker.

But on Monday the grey-haired Juncker, 58, handed the reins of the Eurogroup to a polished 46-year-old Dutchman, promising a new approach to how economic policy among the 17 euro zone countries is shaped and decided.

After a 16-1 vote, the finance ministers named Jeroen Dijsselbloem, an Irish-educated social democrat with flawless English, to succeed Juncker, a Luxembourger who had headed the group for eight years. Only Spain opposed the appointment.

Juncker's departure signals the end of an era during which policy - including some of the most critical decisions of the debt crisis - was frequently discussed until the early hours of the morning over dinner and wine in a smoke-filled room.

Part of a generation of old-school politicians, Juncker disarmed but often irritated ministers with his dry sense of humour, speaking openly of having to lie about issues to the media and discussing his problems with kidney stones.

Olli Rehn, the European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, praised Juncker as one of a kind.

"His shrewd and witty locker-room talk helped to boost morale," Rehn told a news conference as Juncker bowed out, although he will continue as Luxembourg's prime minister.

A mercurial dealmaker, Juncker was pushed to the forefront of Europe's financial firefighting when Greece revealed in 2009 that it had lied about its borrowings and run up huge debts, forcing Athens into a multi-billion-euro bailout.

Crafty and quick-witted, with a gravelly voice from heavy smoking, Juncker was always the first official to brief the media at the end of monthly Eurogroup meetings, making him one of the most prominent communicators in the EU.

But it was a tall order for a man from a country of just 500,000 people to run arguably Europe's most important decision-making body. He faced criticism in early 2011 when he told a conference in Brussels he sometimes lied, telling his audience that he favoured "secret, dark debates."

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