Tallinn - European finance ministers on Friday welcomed a call by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to enlarge the eurozone, though they said that no country should be forced to join against its will or allowed to join without meeting requirements.
The 19 finance ministers of the so-called Eurogroup met in the Estonian capital Tallinn after Juncker called on all European Union countries to adopt the euro and urged deeper integration into the eurozone in a speech before the European Parliament on Wednesday.
"I think Juncker has given great impetus to bring Europe forward, it was a great speech," German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said, adding, "The details need always to be discussed."
Enlargement to be “a gradual process”
He said that countries wishing to join the monetary union must meet the necessary economic conditions.
"As long as [the conditions] are not fulfilled, it is not in the interest of a member state [of the EU] to become a member of the monetary union, nor can the monetary union accept such countries because it would jeopardize the stability of the whole monetary union," he said.
Jeroen Dijsselbloem, president of the Eurogroup, said that he expected the enlargement to be "a gradual process" that would depend on the willingness of non-euro countries to join.
"I don’t think we can top-down force it into a higher speed," the Dutch finance minister said.
Nine of the 28 EU countries still do not use the euro. Under EU treaties, all EU member states are expected to adopt the single currency - with the exception of Britain and Denmark, which have obtained a special opt-out. Britain is due to leave the EU in March 2019.
However, some non-euro countries inside the EU, including Hungary and Poland, have signalled reluctance to join the euro because they say it would result in the national governments having less control over finances.
Dijsselbloem said these countries should not be forced into joining the monetary union, rather, euro countries should work to make the currency more attractive.
"I think that the eurozone, as it is, performing better and better will make a very strong case for other countries to join," he said.
An opportunity for deepening integration
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire stressed that deepening the integration among current euro countries would be conducive to the future enlargement of the single currency area.
He noted that there was currently a "unique window of opportunity" for deepening integration because the financial situation has vastly improved in Europe.
"When you are at a time of crisis - of economic crisis - it's very difficult to think about the future and to try to improve and enforce the eurozone," he said.
"But when you are in a better shape ... and we are in a better economic situation – we have the possibility and the unique opportunity to go forward."
In his speech before the European Parliament, Juncker also proposed creating the position of a European minister of economy and finance, who could coordinate all EU financial institutions and chair the Eurogroup.
The minister would be accountable to the European Parliament.
The position would ensure more democratic oversight over matters in the euro area, Pierre Moscovici, European commissioner for economy and finance, said at the sidelines of the Eurogroup meeting.
"Today, the chairman of the Eurogroup, whoever he is, has no democratic accountability," Moscovici said. "Yes, he can talk to his own parliament, but he's not in full responsibility in front of our parliament, the European Parliament."
Dijsselbloem shot back saying he had a "strong objection" to the notion that the current functioning of the Eurogroup, which is an intergovernmental body, was not democratic, saying that national parliaments in the eurozone "scrutinize" their work.
He said he appreciated Juncker's proposal to simplify the EU system, but the Eurogroup was working well in its current form.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said.