'Cerebral' Spindelegger takes on Austrian finances

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 13, 2013 4:38 AM
'Cerebral' Spindelegger takes on Austrian finances

By Michael Shields

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian conservative leader Michael Spindelegger, set to replace the combative Maria Fekter as the euro zone country's finance minister, is as plain vanilla as Fekter is brash.

A man who describes himself as cerebral, responsible and calm has put himself into the finance ministry hot seat in a cabinet shake-up accompanying a new version of the coalition his OVP People's Party struck with the Social Democrats.

Spindelegger has declared the centrist, pro-Europe government's role is to "lead Austria out of crisis by 2018" and to eliminate its structural budget deficit by 2016.

In an offbeat interview with ORF TV before September elections, the father of two said he had never got a speeding ticket, had definitely not been drunk in the past decade, and last broke the law by using an outdated parking voucher.

For the Eurogroup club of euro zone finance ministers, he will be a distinct change from Fekter, a blunderbuss of a politician with a reputation for speaking out when others hold their tongues.

"I'm more interested in the content, less in the presentation," Spindelegger confided in his TV interview, adding he preferred his approach to be "gemuetlich (laid back), not hard talk like our friends in Germany".

The soft-spoken lawyer from Lower Austria filled a sudden leadership vacuum at his party in 2011 when his predecessor had to step down for bad health.

That made Spindelegger, who turns 54 on December 21, OVP chief as well as foreign minister, a post he had held since 2008.

Associates describe him as firmly focused on domestic policy even as foreign minister.

It was under his watch that Austria decided in June - three months before elections - to pull its peacekeeping soldiers from the U.N. mission on the Golan Heights after worsening fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels sent them scurrying into bunkers for cover.

The government under Chancellor Werner Faymann closed ranks on the move, which dealt a severe blow to the U.N. force but made sure no Austrian soldiers came home in body bags.

"Like the chancellor, he's more an administrator of stagnation than a visionary," said one person who has worked with him.

Spindelegger now faces the task of cutting state debt and deficits while still propping up ailing banks like nationalized Hypo Alpe Adria, whose chronic woes have gone largely unaddressed during weeks of coalition talks.

(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)