Inside job

The presidency of the Eurogroup - a body made up of EU members that use the single currency - has been given to a politician who most people have probably never heard of: Paschal Donohoe. Despite being the favourite for the position, Spain's Economy minister Nadia Calviño lost out last week to her Irish counterpart; the Spaniard had been promised the necessary ten votes but secured only nine, meaning someone changed their mind at the last minute.

It's certainly a political blow for Spain, coming as it does just ahead of an EU summit this weekend on the distribution of Covid-19 recovery funds. But the election of a new president to this obscure post should make us look closer at the Eurogroup itself and consider the criticisms it faces, many of which come from elsewhere within the EU. In a speech he gave in 2017, Pierre Moscovici, one of Brussels' leading bureaucrats, described it as a "pale imitation of a democratic body".

One of the Eurogroup's main problems is that it's almost guaranteed to present its president, who must represent their home government as well as the body as a whole, with a conflict of interest. This is especially true in post-Covid Europe: Spain is among the worst-hit countries in the world by the pandemic, so one can certainly see how Calviño's loyalty to Spaniards might have affected her ability to think clearly and dispassionately as leader of the Eurogroup. This will be the case for Donohoe in his new position, too.

The most damaging and effective charges against the Eurogroup, though, concern its lack of transparency and informality. The former is evident even in the secretive voting process, which this time around has resulted in a somewhat surprising choice. As the EU's former Budget Director, Calviño is vastly more experienced than Donohoe when it comes to dealing with Brussels, so who knows why the Irishman won out. Rumours are that Austria and some Eastern European countries voted for Donohoe, but exactly which members backed him over Spain's candidate, and why, remains a mystery.

To further deepen the darkness surrounding the Eurogroup, no minutes or agendas for its meetings are published, so what's discussed and decided by members is often unknown. The body is also largely unaccountable to the EU parliament or the Commission. Greece's former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, once said that its activities were characterised by an "outrageous opacity": not without good reason, it seems.

Before the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, the Eurogroup had no legal basis, and even now that foundation is provided by just two vague articles, one specifying that its members "meet informally... when necessary" and the other that they elect a president every two-and-a-half years. For Brussels outsiders, it's hard to know exactly what Calviño has just missed out on.