A gentleman's agreement

Does the Spanish economy minister know something we don't? After a meeting with Accenture Strategy and El Economista newspaper this week, Luis de Guindos was asked who he reckons is likely to take up the soon-to-be-vacant position of Vice President on the European Central Bank (ECB) board (Portugal's Vítor Constâncio steps down in May 2018): “I'm convinced,” the minister told reporters, “that the position will go to Spain.” It is reasonable to suppose - given that De Guindos runs the Spanish economy and that this is a big economic job - that when he says “Spain” in this context, he means “me”.

The Spanish government has been seeking a place at the ECB board's table for the last five years, so it's small wonder that De Guindos is so certain - or perhaps merely hopeful - that a Spaniard will replace Constâncio. In 2012, José Paramo was replaced by Luxembourg's Yves Mersche, even though another Spanish candidate, Antonio Sáinz de Vicuña, was nominated to replace Paramo. The Spanish government took it personally, with De Guindos claiming that the ECB had broken a “gentleman's agreement” in not putting Sainz de Vicuna on the board. Mersche's appointment rendered Spain the largest eurozone county without representation on the ECB board; five years on, that is still the case.

Since 2012, the conservative Popular Party government to which De Guindos belongs has been kept busy with domestic affairs. Yet the Spanish economy minister has never forgotten about the ECB's snub five years ago. Last December, he fulminated to a press conference in Madrid that Spain wasn't adequately represented in top EU committees: “this government will try to be influential in all [EU] debates”, said de Guindos. And, by way of assurance, the minister added that “Spain is out of the political-uncertainty spotlight”. This was just two months after the PP scraped a second term in office after a ten-month political deadlock and two inconclusive general elections. It was also - although De Guindos couldn't have known it at the time - less than a year before all hell would break loose in Catalonia (again).

The ECB's board members are selected by the European Council by qualified majority, meaning that a candidate must secure 55% of members' votes to gain a seat. It remains to be seen whether the Council agrees with De Guindos that Spain is sufficiently out of the “political-uncertainty spotlight” for one of its leading politicians to take on a weighty EU role. Yet the ambitious minister seems certain that, come May, a Spaniard will once again sit on the board. You can't help wondering if De Guindos is privy to some behind-the-scenes machinations which will bag him the vice-president position. Perhaps he's been assured that, unlike the one five years ago, this “gentleman's agreement” won't be broken.