Key EU ministers ignore budget rule revamp for Italy

UNION. Flags of European Union fly next to flags of EU countries at the European Parliament on July 2, 2019 in Strasbourg, eastern France, during the inaugural European Parliament session. Photo by Frederick Florin/AFP

UNION. Flags of European Union fly next to flags of EU countries at the European Parliament on July 2, 2019 in Strasbourg, eastern France, during the inaugural European Parliament session.

Photo by Frederick Florin/AFP

HELSINKI, Finland – The EU's most powerful members on Saturday ignored a call by Italy to reform the European Union's budget rules, handing an early setback to the pro-European government in Rome.

EU finance ministers meeting in Helsinki discussed a possible update to the EU's rules on public spending, but key countries Germany, France and the Netherlands were represented by subordinates.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called this week for the EU's Stability and Growth Pact, which limits budget deficits to 3% of gross domestic product in member states, to be "improved" and simplified.

The pact was the main bone of contention between the European Commission and the previous populist government in heavily indebted Italy, which must submit a balanced budget to Brussels in the coming weeks.

Reforming the rules, which also include a 60% of GDP cap on debt, sharply splits Italy from the EU's richer numbers that are loath to ease the pressure on Rome's chronic overspending.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said any attempt to modify the rules would be too contentious and the EU must prioritize other challenges, especially investment.

"I am very cautious on ideas to change the rules," Le Maire said in Helsinki on Friday before jetting off early from the two-day meeting.

A reform would be "very difficult, very long, and very uncertain," added Le Maire, who was seen as a potential ally for Rome in the debate.

The long-planned discussion on Saturday was intended to explore ways to simplify the rules as well as potentially change spending limits. 

Northern countries, led by the Netherlands, accuse the European Commission of loosely interpreting data in order to give deficit-running countries leeway. The current system has helped absolve countries such as Spain, Belgium and France, critics allege.

EU Commission vice president Valdis Dombrovkis downplayed the no-shows, and said the discussion was a serious one.

"At this stage I would not like to jump to conclusions and listen to what ministers have to say," he said ahead of the talks in Helsinki. – Rappler.com