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Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the head of the eurozone’s finance ministers, is facing calls to resign after refusing to apologise for saying crisis-hit European countries had wasted their money on “drinks and women”.
The Dutch policy chief – whose Labour party suffered a punishing defeat in national elections last week – was dubbed “insulting” and “vulgar” by MEPs for remarks made in an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
At a European parliamentary hearing in Brussels on Tuesday, Mr Dijsselbloem said he would “not apologise” after coming under pressure to distance himself from remarks perceived as an attack on the bloc’s southern countries such as Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece.
In comments reported by the Spanish press, Mr Dijsselbloem told FAZ:
During the crisis of the euro, the countries of the North have shown solidarity with the countries affected by the crisis.
As a Social Democrat, I attribute exceptional importance to solidarity. [But] you also have obligations. You can not spend all the money on drinks and women and then ask for help.
Despite being given repeated opportunities to apologise, Mr Dijsselbloem stood firm, insisting that “solidarity” in the eurozone meant all governments should stick by promises to adhere to the EU’s budgetary rules on debt and deficit limits.
“The concept that when I am being stern on the rules and regulations… and taking them seriously, that this is an attack, is a huge mistake” he told MEPs.
Greece, Ireland and Portugal were bailed out by the EU and International Monetary Fund in 2010, while Spain’s banking system was rescued with creditor funds in 2012.
Spanish MEP Gabriel Mato said the comments were “absolutely unacceptable” and an “insult” to member states, claiming Mr Dijsselbloem had lost his “neutrality” as Eurogroup chief.
The criticism is likely to heap pressure on Mr Dijsselbloem’s position as chair of 19-member Eurogroup. He is currently the Netherlands interim finance minister after his centre-left party suffered a collapse in support in national elections last week.
Mr Dijsselbloem’s mandate as president ends in January 2018. Before today he hinted at staying on in the position until a formal coalition is appointed in the Netherlands.
Responding to MEPs criticism, Mr Dijsselbloem said: “Don’t be offended, it is not about one country but about all our countries. The Netherlands also failed a number of years ago to comply with what was agreed [on financial rules]. I don’t see a [conflict between] regions of the eurogroup”.
“If you want to maintain public and political support throughout the EU for solidarity you must always also talk about what commitments and what efforts must be made by everyone to maintain that solidarity.”
Portugal’s minister for foreign affairs, Santos Silva, called on Mr Dijsselbloem to resign.
“It seems that the president of the Eurogroup has spent all these years without understanding what really happened to countries like Portugal, Spain or Ireland”, he said.
Gianni Pitella, head of the Socialist grouping in the European parliament, questioned whether Mr Dijsselbloem was “fit” to hold the Eurogroup chair:
Dijsselbloem went far beyond by using discriminatory arguments against the countries of southern Europe. There is no excuse or reason for using such language, especially from someone who is supposed to be a progressive.
In the parliament, Spanish MEP Ernest Urtasun told the Dutch minister: “Maybe it is funny for you, but I don’t think it is. I would like to know if this is your first statement as a candidate to renew your post as president of the Eurogroup.”