In shift away from austerity, euro countries pick new leader

BRUSSELS (AP) — Portuguese Finance Minister Mario Centeno has won the race to be the next voice of the 19-country eurozone, a victory that marks a move away from the austerity mantra that has marked the recent crisis-ridden years in the single currency bloc.

Centeno, the overwhelming favorite, came out on top after two rounds of voting among his peers and will officially succeed Dutchman Jeroen Dijsselbloem on Jan. 13. His term as eurogroup president will last for two and a half years.

Following his victory, Centeno said he hoped to promote “inclusive” growth policies that will help “put an end to a period that was very difficult for Europe.” Other priorities include bolstering the resilience of the eurozone, he said.

“We have a very unique time window to further prepare our economies and our societies better,” Centeno said after seeing off the challenge from Luxembourg’s Pierre Gramegna, Slovakia’s Peter Kazimir and Latvia’s Dana Reizniece-Ozola.

Centeno will take the helm at an opportune time. Whereas Dijsselbloem’s five years in the post were marked by crises largely centered on cash-strapped Greece, Centeno’s tenure starts off in relatively benign conditions. The eurozone economy is growing strongly, while worries over Greece’s future in the bloc have subsided with the country poised to exit its bailout era next summer.

“We are facing different challenges today from the ones we faced a couple of years ago,” he said.

Centeno’s victory has the potential to symbolize a new era for the eurozone, all the more so as he comes from less-wealthy southern Europe. While eurozone governments still insist that countries must keep their public finances in shape, there’s a greater acknowledgement that the austerity of the past few years has taken a heavy toll on people, particularly in countries like Portugal and Greece.

“We are confident this will represent a turning point for the future development of the eurozone and for the whole of Europe,” said Gianni Pittella, leader of the S&D Group in the European Parliament. “We are finally overcoming the era of blind and stupid austerity that has left behind even more poor and divided societies across Europe.”

One of those societies is Portugal. The country was one of four eurozone countries, along with Greece, Ireland and Cyprus, that had to be bailed out during the region’s debt crisis.

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