Revising the Stability and Growth Pact: Public Finances in EMU 2006
The new regulatory framework for the Stability and Growth Pact entered into force in July 2005. This Commission Communication reviews the implementation of the revised Pact and highlights the challenges ahead.
Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament: Public Finances in EMU 2006 - The first year of the revised Stability and Growth Pact [COM(2006) 304 final].
The Commission considers the implementation of the revised Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) to have been mainly positive, particularly the corrective arm of the Pact. However, there remain some concerns related to the implementation of the preventive part of the Pact. Despite the positive results, the Commission draws attention to some challenges ahead.
Consolidating public finances: positive results
The consolidation of public finances has resumed and there has been smooth and consistent implementation of the revised SGP procedures, benefiting from an increased economic rationale for decisions and recommendations. The revised SGP ensures that excessive deficits are properly identified and allows better account to be taken of country-specific economic considerations. When the deficit of a Member State exceeds 3% of gross domestic product (GDP), the Commission must prepare a report providing an overall assessment of the economic and budgetary situation in that Member State. The reports give consideration to all elements that are relevant for an evaluation of the situation, to allow a decision to be taken on the existence of an excessive deficit and deadlines set for its correction. Since the reform, all deficits in excess of 3% of GDP have been considered excessive. In the view of the Commission, this confirms that the SGP remains a rule-based framework, which is the best guarantee that commitments will be honoured and that all Member States will be treated equally.
When deficits in excess of the reference value of 3% of GDP occur, corrective measures must be adopted promptly. The consideration of economic factors is also important and permits the Council to set realistic deadlines for correcting excessive deficits when applying the excessive deficit procedure. Taking account of the economic situation has not, in the opinion of the Commission, led to a more lenient application of the rules. More account has been taken of the development of public debt when applying the excessive debt procedure.
In March 2005, when agreement was reached on the revision of the SGP, the Council stressed that improved cooperation between the Commission, the Council and Member States was important in order to strengthen national ownership of and compliance with the SGP rules. Experience has shown that, by introducing more scope for economic judgement in the budgetary surveillance process, the reform has stimulated a constructive and transparent dialogue about economic policy at EU level. This has strengthened peer support and pressure, thus contributing to the smooth operation of the Pact.
Implementation of the preventive arm of the Pact: some concerns
The 2005 reform of the SGP introduced a number of changes, strengthening the preventive arm of the Pact by increasing its economic rationale. One criticism of the original Pact was that a uniform medium-term budgetary objective of "close to balance or in surplus" imposed inappropriate budgetary policies in some countries experiencing high nominal growth. The revised SGP no longer requires Member States to converge on a uniform close-to-balance budgetary position in the medium term. Rather, an individual medium-term objective is set for each Member State, taking into account the economic and budgetary circumstances in each country, so as to provide a sufficient safety margin with respect to the reference value of 3% of GDP and ensure convergence on prudent levels of debt. The revised SGP also includes a number of simple budgetary policy principles appropriate for Member States that have not yet achieved their medium-term target and for budgetary policy during cyclical upswings. In particular, Member States in the euro zone or participating in the exchange-rate mechanism (ERM II) should aim for an annual structural adjustment in line with the benchmark of 0.5 % of GDP.
The Commission recognises that the medium-term budgetary objectives reflect economic fundamentals and national strategies. It notes that some countries have proposed medium-term targets that are more ambitious than strictly required by the revised SGP. In most cases, this is to allow consistency between the objectives set in the European context and a national strategy to ensure the sustainability of public finances, reflecting the economic situation in each country.
However, the Commission notes that planned budgetary efforts to achieve the objectives are not always sufficiently ambitious and fall short of the 0.5 % benchmark in 2006. According to the Commission Spring Forecast, on average the structural balance for the EU will not improve and for some Member States will even deteriorate. There is a risk that budgetary policy will turn expansionary and pro-cyclical. Rigorous budgetary execution and, possibly, additional consolidation measures in 2006, together with ambitious budgetary policy for 2007, are needed in order to reduce the gap between the progress already made and requirements under the SGP.
Despite clear improvements, the Commission feels that some questions remain about the credibility of the medium-term budgetary adjustments planned by Member States. The Commission notes that the medium-term budgetary projections presented in the 2005 updates of stability and convergence programmes are, in most cases, based on realistic macroeconomic assumptions. Another positive development is the much less frequent use of one-off and other temporary measures within medium-term programmes. In a number of cases, however, the measures necessary to achieve the budgetary objectives are not specified in sufficient detail. The combination, in some programmes, of a concentration of efforts on the end of the period covered by programmes and a lack of detail about the measures underlying the planned reduction in the deficit is a source of concern.
Identifying the challenges ahead for the revised SGP
Experience over the year since the revision of the SGP in the summer of 2005 shows that the EU budgetary framework is regaining credibility. However, the Commission identifies a number of challenges ahead:
- Respecting the spirit of the reform when the economic climate is favourable. The Commission stresses the importance of conducting prudent budgetary policies when the economic climate is favourable so as to contain the accumulation of debt and ensure it is reduced to sustainable levels. It considers that larger budgetary adjustments should be made in 2006 and will endeavour to ensure that the budgets set for 2007 are ambitious.
- Putting a greater emphasis on the sustainability of public finances. Despite the progress made in reducing the government deficit, the debt ratio in the EU increased from 62.4 % of GDP in 2004 to 63.4 % of GDP in 2005. Given the long-term challenges faced by most EU Member States, such as an ageing population, large reductions in public debt are needed.
- Improving governance as regards statistics. The effective implementation of the European budgetary framework depends on the quality, reliability and early publication of harmonised budgetary statistics in accordance with European accounting standards. The ongoing work to strengthen the European statistical system must be intensified.
- Creating better synergies between budgetary policy and growth. An important challenge facing the EU is how to foster the implementation of reforms that allow progress towards sustainable public finances and, at the same time, enhance growth prospects. In order to support sustainable growth, increased attention should be paid to the implications of budgetary policy on macroeconomic developments.
- Developing fiscal rules and institutions at national level. The agreement on the SGP reform stressed that national budgetary rules and institutions could play a more prominent role in domestic budgetary surveillance. The Commission welcomed the declaration of national Finance Ministers, in the context of the reform of the SGP. It considers that progress could also be made on strengthening the interaction between national budgetary procedures and the EU budgetary framework.