ECB chief gets a cartoon ‘rival’

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Series Details Vol.7, No.26, 28.6.01, p16
Publication Date 28/06/2001
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Date: 28/06/01

By Laurence Frost

DIDIER Reynders moved swiftly to burst the bubble of hype surrounding speculation that the Belgian presidency was planning to nominate a new euro 'tsar' to rival Wim Duisenberg.

Instead, the boyish-looking finance minister introduced 'Mr Euro' (see above), a coin-shaped cartoon figure who answered his prepared questions from an overhead projector screen.

Although perhaps much more forthcoming than the president of the European Central Bank, the new 'Mr Euro' ended talk of a direct challenge to Duisenberg's authority.

But his arrival will have done little to smooth tensions between the two men, as Reynders inherits the chair of the euro-group of the 12 member states in the euro-zone. Duisenburg had grown quite used to being referred to by the 'Mr Euro' epithet - sometimes even affectionately.

The handling of the changeover to the euro has been the subject of a long-running power struggle between the ECB chief and euro-zone finance ministers.

Duisenburg has pointedly stayed away from some of their meetings. When he chose a bankers' conference in Singapore over the last euro-group session earlier this month, it was Reynders who led the criticism. The two have also clashed over calls for front-loading - the early supply of euro notes and coins to shops and service-providers in preparation for 'E-day'. The bank supremo has stood firm on his refusal to allow the circulation of notes before the event, despite dire warnings from retailers.

As Reynders exchanged scripted banter with the cartoon coin, it became clear who was pulling the strings. To dispel any lingering doubts, the minister put it on record that he too expected to play a Mr Euro role of sorts.

Since the beginning of this year, Reynders said, there had been growing consensus that the euro-group chair should speak for all members. "It's the most important thing to have only one voice for the ECB and one voice for the euro-group," he added. "If it's possible, I'm hoping that during the second part of this year we will have the presence of the ECB president at all the euro-group meetings." Reynders also indicated that Belgium would not give up on persuading the ECB to sanction a limited supply of euro notes in the days before 'E-day' - despite the bank's determined resistance to calls by finance ministers,

MEPs and industry for early distribution. "I want to take the debate forward on this concerning ATMs [cash machines]," said Reynders. "We'll have to make sure they're fully operational at one minute past midnight. We will have to test them - and this would presuppose that we could get certain denominations of euro notes." Reynders promised to open a debate with the ECB and with his colleagues over this issue.

Article forms part of a survey on the Belgian EU Presidency, July-December 2001.

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