Last tango for Eurogroup chief Dijsselbloem

Brussels (AFP) –


Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who steps down as chair of the Eurogroup on Monday, rose from obscurity to become an unflappable dealmaker who helped guide Europe through the worst of the Greek debt crisis.

Only two months after becoming Dutch finance minister in November 2012, Dijsselbloem was thrust into heading the powerful Eurogroup of 19 finance ministers -- and headlong into the crisis in Cyprus.

In a baptism by fire, the straight-talking Dijsselbloem drew criticism for his handling of the 2013 bailouts, put down mainly to his inexperience in navigating the treacherous waters of a global economy in meltdown.

He was criticised for a bailout that forced the closure of a major Cypriot bank, and then sent markets into a tail-spin when he said the Cyprus plan could serve as a template for future bailouts -- an off-the-cuff observation that in the end turned out to be partly true.

A clumsy turn of phrase would become a running motif for Dijsselbloem, who last year drew the fury of southern Europeans with a quip that implied that bailed out countries spent their money on "drinks and women".

Despite the bumps, the curly-haired Dijsselbloem -- pronounced "day-sell-bloom" -- stoically weathered the storms and ends his tenure respected for his cool and calm approach.

The 51-year-old is "serious, patient, and someone who fought hard to win the deep trust of his partners", former French finance minister Michel Spain told AFP.

"Despite his usual reserve, he became a true friend," Sapin said.

- 'Day-sell-bloom' -

Taking exception to the plaudits would be Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's former finance minister, a leftwing firebrand with whom Dijsselbloem frequently battled over Greece's bailout programme.

The pair -- one besuited and bespectacled, the other shaven-headed and fond of leather jackets and motorcycles -- famously shared the tensest of handshakes after one early meeting and reportedly almost came to blows.

But, strongly backed by the powerful German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who has also recently left office, Dijsselbloem bloomed into a skilled and no-nonsense negotiator.

His first breakthrough came in early 2014, when he put together Europe's banking union, an ambitious project devised to protect taxpayers from forking out public funds in case banks go bankrupt.

Against the odds, Dijsselbloem found agreement between different European institutions as well as France and Germany.

But it was the third rescue of Greece in 2015, with an Athens run by radical leftists, that took up much of "Mr Euro's" time.

Despite his sparring with the maverick Varoufakis, Dijsselbloem maintained dialogue with Athens as default loomed, travelling to discuss the issues with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

- Dancing, chicken and pigs -

The Dutch centre-left newspaper De Volkskrant once described him as "a little stuffy and as loyal as a guide dog" who didn't seek the limelight.

Dijsselbloem studied agricultural economics in the Netherlands and business in Ireland and early on acquired a reputation as a backroom strategist.

Positioned on the right of the Netherlands' left-of-centre Labour party, Dijsselbloem shares his party's pro-European vision, while backing balanced budgets and austerity measures.

This stance would cost him and his party dearly, losing miserably in elections earlier this year.

Dijsselbloem was born in the southern city of Eindhoven, into a mostly apolitical family.

His political awakening came at 15 when he took part, against his parents' will, in a 1983 protest against a Cold War nuclear missile installation.

Father to a teenage son and daughter, Dijsselbloem is an admirer of Miles Davis and of the British comedy series "Monty Python's Flying Circus".

In his spare time, he enjoys reading books on economic matters and dancing tango with his wife.

Dijsselbloem would also like to spend more time on his other hobby: raising chickens and pigs and working in his garden in the central Dutch city of Wageningen.