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Eurozone finance ministers pick Portuguese as their new leader

Mario Centeno has been elected as the new Eurogroup president, with the finance ministers praising him for his balancing act between growth and budget discipline that earned him a comparison with football star Ronaldo.

The little known former central banker will replace outgoing Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem in January, and beat out his counterparts from Luxembourg, Slovakia and Latvia to win one of Europes most coveted jobs.

Centeno, 50, was long the favorite for the post and his victory came after two rounds of voting at a closed door session of the 19 Eurogroup ministers in Brussels on Monday. The winning candidate had to secure 10 votes to win.

"Portugals recent experience shows that it is possible in Europe to reconcile the objectives of budgetary recovery and growth," Centeno said last week as he announced his candidacy.

His target, he said, was to "contribute to obtaining the necessary consensuses needed to complete the economic and monetary union" and make the euro into an instrument "to promote economic and social convergence." Former Dutch finance minister Dijsselbloem must step down as Eurogroup head after losing his ministerial job when his party suffered a poor election result earlier this year.

The job chief is considered one of the EUs "five presidents" along with European Commission head Juncker and European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi.

The Cristiano Ronaldo of the Ecofin

Eurogroup president is one of the most strategic in the European Union, tasked with guiding economic policy in the face of clashing opinions and resistance, most notably by austerity-pushing Germany, the blocs most powerful member. Centeno was widely expected to take the prize, having won the support of Spain and positive signs from France and Italy, the eurozones second and third biggest economies.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has also backed him. Former German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble, not excessively prone to handing out flattery and a staunch defender of budgetary rigor, last May called him "the Cristiano Ronaldo of the Ecofin," — the meeting place of EUs finance and economy ministers.

The remark, lapped up by Portuguese media, helped make Centeno the face of economic recovery in Portugal that was once one of the eurozones weakest economies depending on international aid to survive the areas debt crisis. But now Portugals public deficit is the lowest it has ever been in 43 years of democracy.

Growth is humming along at levels not seen since the start of the century, and the unemployment rate is back to pre-crisis levels. Read more: Portugal books tourism record Centeno, who loves rugby and cooking, is the son of a bank employee and a postal civil servant who grew up in the southern Algarve region. He is a graduate of the prestigious Harvard University in the United States.

uhe/aos (Reuters, dpa, AFP)
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