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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 April, 2004, 19:14 GMT 20:14 UK
Two-horse race after EU finance talks
John Moylan
BBC correspondent in Punchestown

EU finance ministers have been meeting at Ireland's Punchestown Racecourse - but the real race is over who will head the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg gets a light from Gerrit Zaim of the Netherlands outside the conference centre
Ireland's new smoking ban affected even the finance chiefs
Pity Europe's finance chiefs. They preside over mostly lacklustre economies.

They watch as the recent strength of the euro makes life difficult for their exporters.

The rules which underpin their currency - the stability and growth pact - are on hold.

What's more - thanks to Ireland's ban on smoking in the workplace - they were unable to smoke inside their own conference centre.

Several ministers had to brave the elements for a cigarette.

And, with five hours of meetings on Saturday, they missed both Arsenal v Manchester United and the Grand National horse race.

Down to two

On top of all that, they had to try to agree on a European candidate for the head of the IMF.

The post of director general became vacant in March, when Germany's Horst Koehler unexpectedly resigned to run for the German presidency.

Jean Lemierre
Hot favourite: Jean Lemierre
The IMF is traditionally headed by a European. So the vacancy led to much behind the scenes horse trading.

In the end, they put off a final decision but narrowed the field to two favourites. They now say they hope for a final accord on the fringes of the annual meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in London on 18-19 April.

The first - and the frontrunner - is France's Jean Lemierre, president of the EBRD.

He is reported to have the backing of Germany too, despite the fact that Jean-Claude Trichet - another Frenchman - heads the European Central Bank (ECB).

Second is the outgoing Spanish Finance Minister Rodrigo Rato.

The odds on him widened when a fellow countryman was recently given the vacant seat on the board of the ECB.

The ousting of his government in recent general elections may also go against him. But he is said to have the backing of a big grouping of Latin American countries and a number of smaller EU states - often at the receiving end of IMF assistance.

Technocrat v politician

Mr Lemierre is seen as a technocrat, Mr Rato more of a heavyweight politician.

"We have two candidates with different profiles, one a financial expert, the other the experienced politician," said German Finance Minister Hans Eichel.

Irish Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy, right, and Ecofin Council President Pedro Solbes
The ministers are hoping to agree on a European candidate
"We support the French candidate, because he is a good candidate. The Spaniard is doubtless also good, but everyone must decide."

British Chancellor Gordon Brown, chairman of the IMF's International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC), has reportedly been tasked with consulting with all other IMF members before the finance ministers meet again.

However, there is mounting concern over the recruitment process among the IMF's own staff.

It is reported that a third of them responded to an internal email expressing concern at the lack of transparency in the appointment process.

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