(From left) Italy Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Deputy Premiers Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini are expected to defy Brussels and refuse to rein-in their big-spending budget which the EU says will only incease the country's already massive debt mountain.
AFP Photo/Filippo MONTEFORTE
Italy set to defy EU with big-spending budget
Ella Ide (Agence France-Presse) - November 14, 2018 - 2:00am

Rome - Italy's populist government was set yesterday to defy the European Commission, preferring the risk of financial sanctions to a revision of its big-spending budget.

The coalition was given time to change its 2019 plans but insists an anti-austerity approach will help kickstart growth in the eurozone's third largest economy and reduce the public debt and deficit.

The far-right League and Five Star Movement (M5S) plan to run a public deficit of 2.4 percent of gross domestic product in 2019 -- three times the target of the government's centre-left predecessor -- and one of 2.1 percent in 2020.

But Brussels forecasts Italy's deficit will reach 2.9 percent of GDP in 2019 and hit 3.1 percent in 2020 -- breaching the EU's 3.0 percent limit.

League head Matteo Salvini vowed Monday to put his back into "defending the budget, as if it were a rugby scrum".

The European Commission rejected Rome's budget outright last month -- a first in the history of the European Union.

It gave Italy until yesterday to make changes and warned non-compliance could activate the "excessive deficit procedure" (EDP), a complicated process that could lead to fines and possibly provoke a strong, adverse market reaction.

While Rome targets economic growth of 1.5 percent, Brussels has forecast a more cautious 1.2 percent, putting Italy at the bottom of the EU table.

Italian leaders are expected to respond after a cabinet meeting at 1900 GMT between Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and his two vice premiers, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio.

"The growth rate is not up for negotiation, it's the result of an extremely technical evaluation," Italy's Economy Minister Giovanni Tria said on yesterday, denying press reports about a possible revision of growth forecasts.

In a report, the IMF saw growth of 1 percent for 2020 and was sceptical of Italy's reform programme, though it welcomed the government's focus on "growth and social inclusion".

- 'Suicide' to reduce deficit -

Tria has accused Brussels of getting its sums wrong.

It would be "suicide" to try to reduce the deficit to the previous goal of 0.8 percent of GDP, he has said, insisting "we must get out of the trap of weak growth".

The problem is Italy's public debt, now a huge 2.3 trillion euros ($2.6 trillion), or 131 percent of Italy's GDP -- second in the euro area only to Greece and way above the 60 percent EU ceiling.

Premier Conte has tried to soothe troubled markets by saying the Commission's forecasts "undervalue the positive impact of the budget and structural reforms".

The fine for refusing to review the budget could correspond to 0.2 percent of Italy's GDP -- about 3.4 billion euros ($3.8 billion)

European Economics Commissioner Pierre Moscovici has said he hopes a compromise can be found to avoid sanctions.

But M5S party head Maio said Sunday: "If you ask us to massacre the Italians, we say no: the budget will not change."

Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, head of the Italian bishops' conference in a country where the Roman Catholic Church still holds much moral sway, warned Monday against "barbarous and arrogant" politics.

"If they get the maths wrong, there's no back-up bank that will save us," he warned.

- EU 'First step' -

The European Commission "will make the first step to move Italy into EDP" after a debt update expected on November 21, said Lorenzo Codogno, former chief economist at the Italian Treasury Department.

The country will likely be given three to six months to prepare correction plans, after which nothing will happen until a new Commission takes up office at the end of next year following European Parliament elections, he said.

"The true guardians of fiscal discipline will be, as usual, financial markets," he said.

All eyes are now on the "spread" -- the difference between yields on 10-year Italian government debt compared with those in Germany -- which has more than doubled since May, when negotiations to form the coalition government in Rome began.

Uneasy investors have already cost the taxpayer an additional 1.5 billion euros ($1.7 billion) in interest over the past six months.

A wider fear is that stress in Italy could spread to other European countries which are only just recovering from the eurozone debt crisis.

"We do not expect a crisis that would lead to a loss of market access," said Agnese Ortolani, analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit.

But the country's debt and the weakness of its banking sector mean "Italy would be too large to rescue without massive ECB support in the event of a large-scale financial crisis," she said.

EUROPEAN COMMISSION
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