Commission wants Eurostat to be given more powers on data

BRUSSELS – The European Commission asked EU finance ministers yesterday to take a budget disciplinary step against Greece that they blocked for Germany and France, saying it hoped for their backing this time around. It also proposed giving the European Union statistics office more legal powers to check budget data provided by members of the bloc – a move aimed at restoring confidence in the quality and reliability of such critical statistics. The Commission said Greece had not done enough to bring its 2005 budget deficit below the EU limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product, moving a step further along the disciplinary procedure already under way against Athens. Massive revisions to Greek budget data have shown it broke the EU deficit cap every year since 1997 and the Commission said Athens would not hit its goal of a 2005 deficit of 2.8 percent. It asked EU finance ministers to endorse its finding and said it would wait for their decision before slapping Athens with the sort of detailed budget recommendations it tried and failed to issue to Berlin and Paris last year. «I hope the Council will agree with our proposal because our arguments are very clear and very strong,» European Monetary Commissioner Joaquin Almunia told a press conference. Greece insisted its 2005 budget target was ambitious but attainable. Different cases Almunia last week put budget disciplinary action against Germany and France on ice, accepting their promises that their deficits would not top the EU limit in 2005. That halted the procedure well before fines, the ultimate theoretical sanction. He said Athens could not be treated in the same way, as the Commission’s forecasts showed it would fail to comply with a previous order to cut its deficit to below 3 percent in 2005. The Commission’s decision to suspend disciplinary action against Berlin and Paris had been expected to help defuse tensions at a time when Brussels is trying to build up a consensus about how to revamp EU budget discipline rules. Reform of the Stability and Growth Pact, which sets strict limits on countries’ deficits, could be agreed to before too long. «I’m quite optimistic we will be able to reach agreement in the first few months of next year,» Almunia said. The EU executive has tabled proposals that would give EU states more flexibility to run deficits during economic downturns, provided they have saved money during good years. It also wants to take greater account of their debt levels. Different views Almunia said reaction to the reform proposals fell into three broad categories – a «very big group who agree with the ideas of Commission,» a smaller group who reject any change and a third group who want more radical reform. «It should be possible for the Commission to overcome some of the differences of opinion that still exist,» he said. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been among those pushing for bigger changes than the Commission has proposed, and made his case at a meeting of EU leaders last week. But Almunia gave this short shrift. «As to Berlusconi, the points he made were not supported,» he said. The Commission also proposed ways to improve the reliability and quality of EU budget data, such as giving the bloc’s statistics office more legal clout and setting norms for national statistics offices. Almunia said he hoped such steps would avoid a rerun of the huge revisions to Greek deficits revealed recently: «We had a very sad experience in the case of Greece and we don’t want this repeated in the future.» Outside the eurozone, Almunia told Hungary it was not doing enough to meet its own deficit cutting plans but said five other EU newcomers – the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Malta, Poland and Slovakia – were on track to correct excessive deficits.