It has been widely reported over the weekend that the European Commission (EC) is seriously considering rejecting France’s new budget proposal which will see it run a deficit of 4.3% next year rather than the EC target of 3%.
As the graph above shows, France has strayed significantly from the path originally agreed with the EC, even after it requested and was granted additional time to meet its deficit targets just last year.
Importantly, this is the first time a country has flagrantly flouted the budget rules. Other countries have missed their targets or asked for extensions, but with the presumption of good faith and serious efforts being made to meet said targets. However, with its latest budget France has rejected the previously agreed cuts (worth 0.8% of GDP) and offered just 0.2% of GDP in savings. In other words it has flat out chosen to ignore the rules.
This may seem like semantics but it puts the EC and the EU more broadly in a tough position. With much of peripheral Europe failing to meet the fiscal rules agreed under the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP), the Fiscal compact and the European Semester, many have already been questioning the effectiveness of these tools. Ultimately, the EC risks replaying one of the key features of the previous crisis – letting a big country break the SGP and then being unable to effectively enforce it for other countries, helping to facilitate the large build-up of sovereign debt.
This is therefore a key test of the viability of the new rules and whether this time will really be any different. Combined with the renewed bank stress tests and bail-in rules, the coming months are an important testing ground for the new financial architecture which the Eurozone has put in place.
Sadly, as Reuters highlights, another fudge looks to be on the cards. While the EC will probably reprimand France to the fullest extent before getting to outright fines, it will also work up a new looser programme which gives it more time. This helps all sides save face and avoids the risk of further weakening French President Francois Hollande to the benefit of the Front Nationale (something which the EU wants to avoid).
As for what happens now, the EC will provide a verdict on the budget by the end of the month in what will be one of the last acts of the Barroso Commission. This is of course all complicated by the hand-over of the EC and the wrangling over who will actually be in charge of enforcing the budget agreements. When all is said and done another muddle through is likely, but with the Eurozone facing economic stagnation investors may be less than convinced by such moves.