Paschal Donohoe’s victory seen as a revolt against EU’s ‘big four’

Spanish said to be seething as small nations choose Irishman over ‘favourite’ candidate

Luxembourg’s finance minister Pierre Gramegna, Spain’s Minister for economic affairs Nadia Calvino and Ireland’s Minister for Finance  Paschal Donohoe. Photograph: Javier Soriano,Emmanuel Dunand, Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

Luxembourg’s finance minister Pierre Gramegna, Spain’s Minister for economic affairs Nadia Calvino and Ireland’s Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe. Photograph: Javier Soriano,Emmanuel Dunand, Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images


Paschal Donohoe’s victory in Thursday’s election for the presidency of the Eurogroup, the influential body of Eurozone finance ministers, was welcomed with polite congratulations and good wishes. Those on the video conference clapped when the result was announced, according to people who observed the call. The EU does nothing quite so well as good manners.

Privately, however, the Spanish are said to be seething at the defeat, while elsewhere in the EU it has been interpreted as a revolt of the small countries against the big beasts. Germany, France and Italy all backed the Spanish candidate Nadia Calvino. Normally that would be enough to sway any EU decision. But not this time. In Brussels, Donohoe’s victory was described as a shock defeat by Europe’s small nations of the big four, which together make up a majority of both the EU’s population and its GDP.

“There’s a big feeling of surprise among the bigger nations, because nobody’s used to a vote where you have the four big countries representing over 80 percent of GDP, and then losing an election with a simple majority,” said one person who followed the contest.

Calvino had been the favourite since she declared, and when she secured the backing of the German finance minister (her fellow social democrat) Olaf Scholz, it copperfastened her status. In the hours before the vote, the French also declared their support for her. Big countries and the Franco-German axis; it would be difficult to beat that, one Irish source in Brussels noted pessimistically. The Luxembourger Pierre Gramegna was also in the race, although Calvino was the one to beat.

Coalition of support

But Donohoe and the team of Irish officials who campaigned for him had assembled a coalition of support among smaller northern, central and eastern European countries, which they reckoned could give them a path to victory.

“It was clear from early on that we wouldn’t get the big countries. But it was also clear that there was no huge enthusiasm for Calvino,” said one official. “The big countries were publicly supportive but they weren’t beating the ditches for support for her.”

The key to any election is in the votes – and the small countries had one vote each, just like the big countries.

Donohoe campaigned not just as a representative of a small country, but as a bridge-builder between big and small, north and south, east and west – and between the more frugally-minded member states and those who want to see joint EU debt and funding for states who need it.

The Irish embassy network swung into campaign mode in recent weeks, while Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar also made calls to the members of their European political groupings. Gary Tobin, an assistant secretary in the Department of Finance who acts as “sherpa” for Donohoe on the EU’s Economic and Financial Committee (sherpas are the officials who prepare for the ministerial meetings) was a crucial part of the campaign, insiders say.

Jobs for politicians

Donohoe also campaigned “as a politician”, says a person familiar with the events of recent weeks. Calvino is a former European Commission official, seconded to the Spanish government. But most EU finance ministers are elected representatives. Politicians tend to be in favour of jobs for politicians. “I’m an elected politician. I will run it as an elected politician,” Donohoe told them.

And Donohoe also campaigned among those who weren’t going to vote for him, paying particular attention to France. He has developed a close personal relationship with Bruno Le Maire, the French finance minister, despite policy differences between France and Ireland, notably on the taxation of tech multinationals. While France didn’t support Donohoe, the Élysée didn’t try to block him, either.

The voting took place by secret, electronic ballot, counted by EU officials. After the first vote, they informed the ministers that no candidate had reached the 10 votes needed for outright victory, and the meeting adjourned for a furious round of phone calls.

The exact results were not given out but Irish officials reckoned they had eight votes, Calvino had eight and Gramegna had three – Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. They now became decisive for the final round, and they moved as one to the Irishman.

But the result was a surprise – and for the Spanish a bitter one. Calvino said she had 10 votes promised, and one minister did not keep his word.

“We had 10 votes secured. Someone didn’t do what he said he was going to do,” she told a Spanish radio station. Irish sources dispute it, but also say: it doesn’t matter now. Though maybe it does to Spain.