COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - A meeting to decide who will be the next chairman of the powerful Eurogroup and who will take up an executive board seat on the European Central Bank broke up in angry disarray on Friday, prompted by a loose-lipped finance minister.
Jean-Claude Juncker, current chairman of the Eurogroup, which steers 17-nation euro zone, ended the meeting early and walked out before finance ministers, central bankers and European Commission officials even discussed the jobs.
He was not present at a later, larger meeting of European Union finance ministers when it started
It means a delay in knowing whether Luxembourger Yves Mersch will take a seat on the ECB Bank board and who will succeed countryman Juncker if he does.
Juncker was upset with Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter for announcing the bloc had reached a separate agreement on the capability of its debt crisis firewall.
“The decision was not possible. The decision is delayed till mid-April,” a visibly upset Juncker said as he left the building without holding a scheduled news conference.
“There was no point in holding a press conference because the Austrian finance minister announced the deal already as the meeting was going on,” he told journalists as he waited to board a lift to his hotel room.
The Danish presidency then cancelled the news conference, a rare move for the Eurogroup.
Fekter’s spokesman said the minister had apologized to Juncker and had only given reporters a guideline about the home stretch of the debt negotiations, telling them Juncker would make an official statement.
Mersch has been tipped as the frontrunner to replace Jose Manuel Gonzalez-Paramo when the Spaniard’s term expires at the end of May and the finance ministers were scheduled to discuss who would fill the post at its meeting on Friday.
If Mersch is named to the ECB board at the end of May, it would be more difficult for Juncker, who is also from Luxembourg, to remain as Eurogroup chairman.
He has said he does not want to remain in a post he has held for 7-1/2 years though there has been talk that Juncker may be asked to stay on while the euro zone grapples with its sovereign debt crisis.
Sources have told Reuters German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble is now highly likely to succeed him.
Juncker’s position is one of the most influential in European decision-making and is one in a series of interconnected posts, including the ECB job.
The other two positions are the head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the head of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the permanent euro zone bailout fund that will come into force from July.
One source told Reuters France’s unwillingness to single out the decision on the ECB board position from the package of four jobs was another reason why ministers postponed an agreement.
Juncker has complained about health problems - most recently kidney stones - and tiredness in the past two years. He did not join euro zone ministers at their joint lunch on Friday, two sources said.
Instead, he was seen wandering around the hotel car park smoking a cigarette and talking heatedly into his cellphone before returning to his hotel room.
One source said Juncker had shouted at Austria’s Fekter during the morning meeting in front of all her fellow ministers for informing the press of the bloc’s decision to boost its firewall.
The same source said Juncker was also furious about Spanish newspaper el Pais running a transcript of the last euro group meeting with details, calling such leaks unacceptable behavior.
If Schaeuble took over, it would give Germany even more control over the agenda of monthly meetings of euro zone finance ministers, but it could also cramp Schaeuble’s style as he would have to act on behalf of all 17 euro area countries.
Reporting by Annika Breidthardt, Francesca Landini and Daniel Flynn and Ilona Wissenbach, additional reporting by Andreas Framke in Frankfurt and Martin Santa in Bratislava, writing by Annika Breidthardt and Paul Carrel; editing by Mike Peacock/Jeremy Gaunt