Attention turns to Italy

BRUSSELS – A new row over EU budget statistics erupted yesterday as Brussels blew the whistle on inconsistencies between Italy’s public debt and deficit figures. The revelations eclipsed signals by the European Commission that it could next week suspend budget disciplinary action against Germany and France for breaking the European Union deficit ceiling. A confidential Commission report, first published by the Financial Times (FT), said that while Rome’s official deficit figures had never exceeded the EU limit of 3.0 percent of gross domestic product, it had borrowed more cash to finance the shortfall. «In particular, data showed a persistently higher cash borrowing requirement… over the deficit, according to the Maastricht (Treaty) definition,» the report said. Every year since 1997, Italy had borrowed more than the EU deficit ceiling, with figures reaching 4.3 percent in 2001 and 4.1 percent in 2003, the FT said, citing the document. European Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said he did not expect «big revisions» to Italian budget data but was concerned over the affair, which follows hard on the heels of massive revisions to Greek deficits going back to 1997. Still, even a tiny revision could be a big deal for Italy, as the Commission forecasts its deficit will be right at the EU limit this year and next, even before the full impact of the government’s planned tax cuts are taken into account. Tensions flare The planned 6.5 billion euros’ worth of tax cuts are already causing friction between Brussels and Rome, with Almunia expressing concern on Monday that the cuts may not be fully offset by savings measures, to the detriment of the deficit. Italian Finance Minister Domenico Siniscalco played down suggestions that Brussels was casting doubt on Italian figures and also fended off criticisms of the tax cuts. The tensions over the Italian fiscal outlook comes at a time when the Commission is trying to close the books on a damaging clash with Germany and France over their repeated breaches of the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact on budget discipline. Almunia said the Commission would next Tuesday suspend the budget disciplinary action that is under way against France and also hoped to deliver similar good tidings to Germany. «I hope I can give also to the Germans good news. But we are still analyzing the latest measures adopted by (its) Parliament,» he told a news conference at the end of a meeting of EU finance ministers. What happens to Germany and France could influence how the Commission deals with similar disciplinary action that is under way against Greece. Athens was shown to have broken the EU deficit cap every year since 1997 following revisions to budget data, including figures which allowed it to join the euro in 2001. Ministers will return to thorny budget issues in January, including reform of the battered Stability and Growth Pact.