February 16, 2018 / 12:47 PM / in 8 months

Soros draws criticism after private ECB meeting on euro zone's future

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Billionaire investor and activist George Soros has met a European Central Bank director to argue for closer euro zone integration, prompting criticism from some EU lawmakers who fear he is exerting undue influence on a sensitive political issue.

FILE PHOTO: Business magnate George Soros arrives to speak at the Open Russia Club in London, Britain June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor/File Photo

The Hungarian-born financier is a veteran advocate of European unity whose championing of liberal causes over decades has earned him many enemies, including Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban and some Brexit supporters.

Soros, 87, held a private meeting on Nov. 14 with Benoit Coeure, a member of the six-strong board that steers ECB policy, to discuss “euro area deepening”, according to a part of Coeure’s diary published on Thursday.

The pair discussed political developments in Europe and the future architecture of the euro area, Soros’ spokesman Michael Vachon said in response to questions.

A source close to the matter said Soros had requested the meeting to discuss a common euro zone budget and Treasury.

Germany has led opposition in the EU to a common budget, fearing it would end up footing the bill for heavily indebted governments in southern Europe.

“I think it’s illegitimate of Mr Soros to instrumentalize the ECB for his own political purposes,” Bernd Lucke, a German conservative member of the European Parliament, said on Friday.

A spokeswoman for the ECB said the participants had only discussed high-level initiatives aimed at deepening euro area integration and did not touch upon monetary policy or Brexit.

Soros’ spokesman Vachon said the meeting was not linked to the activity of the philanthropist’s Open Society Foundations.

He added Soros was accompanied by his aide and by Shahin Vallee, an economist with the billionaire’s investment company, which also manages the foundation’s endowment.

FILE PHOTO: EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (L) meets U.S. financier George Soros as part of consultations on a new Hungarian law that has threatened to force the closure of a university he funds prior to a meeting in Brussels, Belgium, April 27, 2017. REUTERS/Olivier Hoslet/Pool/File Photo

Coeure was accompanied by an ECB official.

ECB “FOREIGN MINISTER”

The ECB does not have a say on political reforms but advises governments and EU bodies on financial matters.

Coeure, informally regarded as the ECB’s “foreign minister”, regularly meets investors and takes part in key EU meetings.

The Frenchman has himself long called for the creation of a euro area Treasury that is accountable to the European Parliament.

Marco Zanni of the anti-EU Europe of Nations and Freedom Group said such behind-the-scenes meetings involving powerful individuals were “not compatible with institutions that consider themselves democratic”.

But not all the reaction was negative.

“It’s the mission of the ECB to work in order to keep the euro zone intact and meeting with someone influential who does the same is part of the mandate,” said Sven Giegold, spokesman for economic and financial affairs for the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament.

Soros is best known for a successful bet against the pound in 1992 that contributed to forcing Britain to withdraw from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, a predecessor of the euro.

But he has described Britain’s decision to leave the EU as a “tragic mistake” and has donated to a campaign that is trying to stop Brexit. Last week supporters of Brexit accused Soros of joining a “secret plot” to keep Britain in the EU.

Soros is also the target of a hostile media campaign in his native Hungary and has been attacked by rightwing campaigners in Italy for his promise to invest $500 million to meet the needs of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe.

($1 = 0.7103 pounds)

Additional reporting by John O'Donnell; Editing by Gareth Jones

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