BRUSSELS: Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem on Wednesday expressed "regret" over his comments that southern European countries blew their money on "drinks and women" but rejected calls to resign.
Dijsselbloem faced a firestorm with Portugal's prime minister and former Italian premier Matteo Renzi calling for his immediate departure, and the head of the European Parliament condemning the "racist and sexist" remarks.
"I regret it if anyone is offended by the remark. It was direct, and can be explained from strict Dutch, Calvinistic culture, with Dutch directness," Dijsselbloem said in a statement to AFP.
Monday's gaffe by Dijsselbloem, who is also Dutch finance minister, and the resulting backlash exposed simmering north-south tensions within the European Union's single currency zone.
"If Europe were serious, Dijsselbloem would be already sacked," said Portuguese premier Antonio Costa at an event in Portugal.
"It is unacceptable that someone who behaves ... with such a racist, xenophobic and sexist attitude towards some European countries remain as head of the Eurogroup," the socialist Costa said.
"The sooner he goes the better," Italy's Renzi said in a post on his Facebook page that reflected criticism from across the EU's so-called Club Med group of countries.
European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, who is also from Italy, said the remarks were "unacceptable."
- 'Unacceptable' -
"To say these racist and sexist comments is wrong, for me it's unacceptable, especially when one has an important role to play," he told AFP in an interview in Brussels.
But Dijsselbloem, already reeling from his party losing heavily in last week's Dutch election in a result that puts his role as finance minister at risk, said he had "no intention to step down" as Eurogroup head.
In an interview with Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper on Monday, Dijsselbloem stressed the importance of eurozone members obeying the bloc's strict rules on spending.
Dijsselbloem said that while committing to financial rescues for poorer nations in the eurozone was important, "I can't spend all my money on drinks and women and then ask for help."
These words were misinterpreted, Dijsselbloem said.
"The sentence referring to alcohol and women was about myself. I said that I cannot expect that if I spend my money in a wrong way that a can then ask for financial support," Dijsselbloem said.
But the words stung in Mediterranean countries Portugal, Greece and Cyprus that have all received eurozone bailouts in recent years -- as has Ireland in northern Europe -- while Spain's banks have also received support.
"I regret that my message was misunderstood and I regret that it emerged as north against south," Dijsselbloem added.
Dijsselbloem, 50, holds one of Europe's most influential positions, chairing the meetings of finance ministers from the 19-country eurozone.
Although the fate of his job as finance minister has been thrown in the air by last week's Dutch elections, his mandate as head of the Eurogroup lasts until January 2018.
- 'Clogs, tulips and windmills' -
The row was a top story on Italian news bulletins Wednesday as commentators rounded on a politician already regarded with suspicion because of his views, seen as hawkish, on the application of EU budget rules to Italy.
"One would have thought that in Amsterdam they know a thing or two about pubs and brothels, even spending their loose change in their coffee shops," the Corriere della Sera daily said in a reference to the Netherlands' legal cannabis cafes.
La Stampa also mocked the Dutch politician's use of what it termed tired old stereotypes. Noting that he had refused to apologise, the Turin daily said Dijsselbloem "then pulled on his clogs and went back to his marvellous windmill in a field of tulips".
Dijsselbloem has won praise for steering the eurozone through part of its seemingly never-ending debt crisis, but there have long been tensions in the single currency area between austerity-pushing northern countries and the debt-hit south.
"Knowing him well, what Dijsselbloem seems to have said does not reflect his most sincere beliefs," said EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who is also Dijsselbloem's predecessor as Eurogroup chief.
Waiting in the wings to replace Dijsselbloem is Spanish Finance Minister Luis de Guindos, who is both from a southern country and a member of the European People's Party, the party of Germany's Wolfgang Schaeuble, the most powerful minister in the Eurogroup.