Lightning visit

Dutch minister beats Macron to the punch on euro advice to Germany

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Let me be the first to call you Mr. Finance Minister. Source: Reuters

Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra wasted no time pledging fealty to his new counterpart in Germany, demonstrating not only that he would faithfully follow a tough line on euro-zone policy but might actually be more catholic than the pope in that regard.

On Wednesday, no sooner had Olaf Scholz taken his oath of office in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s new government than he was hosting Mr. Hoekstra in Berlin, his first meeting as finance minister with an EU counterpart. Germany’s finance minister is widely considered the de facto leader of the euro zone because of the country’s weight in the EU economy. Mr. Scholz’s predecessor, Wolfgang Schäuble, left no doubt he was calling the shots as enforcer of the joint currency’s stability.

Other EU countries are pressing for speedy reform of the euro zone, but Mr. Hoekstra said in Berlin that when is less important than what. “Speed is only the second priority,” he said in an interview with Handelsblatt. “It is much more important that we get it right – not that we do something fast.”

Berlin, too, has been dragging its feet on euro reform. So it is not insignificant that Mr. Hoekstra got in to see Mr. Scholz first, even before the new German finance minister accompanies Ms. Merkel on Friday to Paris to discuss those reforms with Emmanuel Macron. The French president is pushing hard for his goal of a separate budget and finance minister for the euro zone.

“What problem do we want to solve with a euro-zone budget?”

Wopke Hoekstra, Dutch finance minister

Mr. Hoekstra’s response to the Macron reforms is to step on the brakes. “Do we even need that at all?” he asked rhetorically in his interview. “What problem do we want to solve with a euro-zone budget?”

Likewise, Mr. Hoekstra is in no hurry to introduce a common deposit insurance scheme for the euro zone. The Dutch government isn’t opposed to such a measure, but like Germany, it first wants to see banks in better shape. “First a reduction in risks, then a sharing of risks,” he said. “It only works in this order.”

Mr. Hoekstra, who took office in late October, said a more urgent task is to look closely at what happened to the euro zone in the crisis and how to guard against a repeat of that. “The worst thing would be if we let ourselves be pushed now into a mechanism in which we have to discuss in the next crisis whether the burdens are fairly distributed,” he told Handelsblatt.

Mr. Hoekstra’s predecessor, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, was head of the Eurogroup of finance ministers who manage euro policy and a reliable proxy for Mr. Schäuble, even though he was center-left in politics and the German was center-right. Now the roles are reversed. Mr. Hoekstra belongs to the Netherlands’ Christian Democratic party and Mr. Scholz is a Social Democrat.

But the Dutch official has no worries about Germany altering its course. “I have a lot of trust in Scholz,” Mr. Hoekstra said. “He will do what is in Germany’s and Europe’s interest.”

The timing of his visit and the tenor of his remarks left no doubt that he will have Mr. Scholz’s back – even if that means stiffening his spine.

Handelsblatt’s Jan Hildebrand conducted the interview in Berlin. Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global in Washington, DC. To contact the author: d.delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com

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