Brussels, 18 February 2009
Commission assesses Stability and Convergence Programmes of Ireland, Greece, Spain, France, Latvia and Malta; presents reports under excessive deficit procedure
Today the European Commission has examined the updated Stability and Convergence Programmes (SCPs) of Ireland, Greece, Spain, France, Latvia and Malta. Against the background of the ongoing sharp economic downturn, budgetary positions are estimated to have deteriorated markedly in 2008 and to continue deteriorating in 2009 in Ireland, Spain, France and Latvia. In Spain and France this also reflects significant economic stimulus packages adopted in line with the European Recovery Plan that called for timely, targeted and temporary fiscal measures in Member States with fiscal room for manoeuvre. Ireland and Malta have taken a number of measures to support the economy as part of a broader consolidation effort, which seems adequate in light of the macro-fiscal and competitiveness challenges in these countries. Greece has not adopted fiscal stimulus measures, an adequate posture in view of still positive growth and its high debt and large economic imbalances. Latvia also refrained from adopting short-term fiscal stimulus measures given the need to re-balance its economy and restore investor confidence. As all six countries had a budget deficit of more than 3% in 2008, the Commission also adopted reports under the corrective arm of the Stability and Growth Pact. In accordance with Article 104.3 of the Treaty, the reports analyse the reasons for the breach of the 3% reference value, taking due regard of the economic background and other relevant factors. The Commission examined another 11 SCPs today, but in all cases the budgetary position remains within the limits of the Pact (see IP/09/273).
"As a result of the sharp global financial and economic crisis EU public finances are under stress. The crisis brought about a decline in tax revenues and a rise in expenditure (e.g. in unemployment benefits). Public finances deteriorated further as many Member States adopted fiscal measures to support demand and job creation this year, as recommended by the Commission and the Council in the European Recovery Plan. The application of the revised Stability and Growth Pact will help return to sound and sustainable public finances once the recession is over and growth resumes. Our analysis shows that fiscal stimulus measures were adopted across the EU mostly by countries with a budgetary margin of manoeuvre and/or with low debt or external imbalances.
The measures are also generally timely, targeted and temporary. However for the Member States where the general government deficit climbed above the 3% reference value in 2008, the Commission today adopted excessive deficit reports. Exceptional circumstances are considered where appropriate. In all other cases the Commission will use the full flexibility imbedded in the revised Stability and Growth Pact when considering the next steps under the excessive deficit procedure in the weeks to come", said Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquín Almunia.
After more than a decade of strong economic growth, Ireland is now going through a severe recession. The downturn was caused by the financial crisis, the sharp correction in the housing market and the recession in Ireland's main trading partners, the US and the UK. These developments have led to a very sharp deterioration of Ireland's public finances, with the government balance going from a small surplus in 2007 to an estimated deficit of 6.3% of GDP in 2008 and widening to 9.5% in 2009.
The Irish Stability Programme envisages a progressive reduction of the deficit to below the 3% of GDP reference value in 2013, assuming a recovery of economic activity after 2010. The measures adopted by the government can be regarded as welcome and adequate given the high deficit and a sharply increasing debt position (to above the 60% reference value from 2010) and are in line with the European Recovery Plan. But the growth scenario is somewhat optimistic and the consolidation measures presently lack detail. Further risks stem from the measures in place to support the financial sector, in particular bank guarantees and, concerning the debt ratio, the possibility of further capital injections or nationalisations of banks.
In view of the Commission assessment, Ireland is invited to (i) limit the widening of the deficit in 2009 and specify and rigorously implement a substantial broad-based fiscal consolidation program for 2010 and beyond; (ii) in order to limit risks to the adjustment, strengthen the binding nature of the medium-term budgetary framework as well as closely monitor adherence to the budgetary targets throughout the year; (iii) in view of the significant projected increase in age-related expenditure, and also of the increase in debt albeit from a low level expected over the program period, improve the long-term sustainability of public finances by implementing further pension reform measures in addition to pursuing fiscal consolidation.
As the deficit in Ireland reached 6.3% in 2008, thus exceeding the 3% reference value, the Commission also adopted a report under 104.3 of the EU Treaty which lays down an excessive deficit procedure (EDP). This is because while the excess over the reference value can be qualified as exceptional, it is not close to the reference value and it is not temporary. At 40.6% of GDP in 2008, general government gross debt remains below the 60% of GDP reference value but is expected to exceed that value from 2010.
Greece has experienced strong economic growth at 4% per year over the current decade. In 2008 its GDP grew well above the euro area average and in 2009 it was still seen in positive territory in the Commission's January forecasts. However, domestic and external macroeconomic imbalances have widened considerably, which has led to very high public and foreign debt. The ongoing global economic and financial crisis is taking its toll on the economy and putting pressure on the debt burden.
The budget deficit exceeded 3% in 2007 and 2008 and, according to the Greek Stability Programme, it will reach 3.7% in 2009 before falling to 3.2% of GDP in 2010 and 2.6% by 2011. Greece has no room for fiscal impulse given its very high debt and current account imbalance. It has not adopted a stimulus package. The consolidation strategy in 2010 and 2011, outlined in the Programme, relies on expenditure restraint and to a lesser extent on increasing tax revenues, but the plans currently lack in detail on concrete measures.
In view of the Commission assessment, Greece is invited to: (i) strengthen substantially the fiscal consolidation path already in 2009, especially if economic conditions turn out better than expected in the programme, through well-specified permanent measures curbing current expenditure, including a prudent public sector wage policy, thereby contributing to necessary reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio; (ii) ensure that fiscal consolidation measures are also geared towards enhancing the quality of public finances, within the framework of a comprehensive reform programme, in the light of the necessary adjustment of the economy, with a view to recovering competitiveness losses and addressing the existing external imbalances; (iii) implement swiftly the policies to reform the tax administration and improve the functioning of the budgetary process by increasing its transparency, spelling out the budgetary strategy within a longer time perspective and set up mechanisms to monitor, control and improve the efficiency of primary current expenditure; (iv) in view of the mounting level of debt and the projected increase in age-related expenditure, improve the long-term sustainability of public finances, by continuing the on-going reforms in the healthcare and pension system.
The deficit exceeded 3% in 2007 and the general government debt stood at 94.8% of GDP that year, according to the data notified by the Greek authorities in October 2008 and validated by Eurostat, confirmed also in the January 2009 update of the Stability Programme. Therefore, the Commission adopted a report under Article 104.3 of the Treaty, which marks the start of the EDP. According to the Commission's January forecast, the deficit net of one-offs attained 3.6% of GDP in 2008 (or 3.4% of GDP including one-offs). The excess over the 3% reference value is not temporary. The excess over the 3% reference value is also not exceptional, as it does not result from a severe economic downturn in the sense of the Treaty and the Stability and Growth Pact.
Spain is undergoing a sharp contraction of economic activity as a result of the global economic and financial crisis and a severe correction in the housing sector, both taking their toll on public finances and on employment. Since the first half of 2008, the Spanish authorities have also adopted various discretionary measures to stimulate economic activity, in line with the EU Recovery Plan, including tax cuts and investment projects, amounting to 2¼% of GDP in 2009, as well as a series of structural reforms.
In 2008, for the first time in several years, Spain is estimated by the Commission and in its Stability Programme sent mid January to have recorded a budget deficit estimated at 3.4% of GDP. The programme puts the figure this year at -5.8% before a gradual fall to below 4% in 2011. However, the favourable macroeconomic assumptions may imply a lower contribution of economic growth to fiscal consolidation than envisaged and the adjustment path is not fully backed up with concrete measures, except for the discontinuation of the 2009 stimulus package. In this context, a careful assessment of the budgetary impact of discretionary measures will be crucial to ensure the improvement of the medium-term budgetary position, as well as of the long-term sustainability of public finances.
Public debt, which had been reduced to 36.2% of GDP in 2007, is expected to grow to above 50% in 2010.
Based on this evaluation, the Commission proposes three policy invitations for Spain, which focus on: (i) Implement the measures in line with the EERP as planned, while avoiding a further deterioration of public finances in 2009, and carry out with determination the planned structural adjustment in 2010 and beyond, backing it up with measures, and strengthening the pace of budgetary consolidation if cyclical conditions are better than projected, (ii)
In view of the ongoing fiscal deterioration and of the projected impact of ageing on government expenditure, iImprove the long-term sustainability of public finances by implementing the adopted measures aimed at curbing the increase in age-related expenditure; (iii) Ensure that fiscal consolidation measures are also geared towards enhancing the quality of the public finances as planned in the light of the needed adjustment of the economy to address existing imbalances.
In parallel with its assessment of the programme, the Commission is adopting a report under Article 104.3 of the Treaty – on the basis of the breach of the 3% of GDP reference value in 2008. While the deficit remained close to the 3% reference value, the deficit cannot be said to be the result of a severe economic downturn as GDP growth was still positive (over 1%). The excess over the 3% is also not temporary as, according to the programme, it will remain above that level until 2011.
The global financial and economic crisis has also significantly reduced economic growth in France in 2008 and the economy is set to contract by a level close to the euro area average in 2009. In response, the French government unveiled in December a recovery plan amounting to 1.3% of GDP, which will increase the deficit by 0.8% of GDP in 2009 and 0.1% of GDP in 2010. The plan can be considered as targeted, timely and temporary and in line with the EU Recovery Plan.
The French budget deficit is estimated to have reached 3.2% in 2008, according to recent government information sent to the Commission and to increase to 4.4% in 2009 before falling to below 3% in 2011, according to the new projections. The higher figures rely on the same macroeconomic scenario as notified at the end of December.
The programme foresees a consolidation of public finances through a restrictive stance, especially in 2010. Risks are linked in particular to the markedly favourable macroeconomic assumptions and the current uncertain environment, but they also reflect the high deficits recorded when economic conditions were more favourable.
In view of the above assessment, France is invited to (i) implement in 2009 the measures in line with the EU Recovery Plan as planned while maintaining the objective of avoiding a further deterioration of public finances; (ii) implement the planned structural adjustment in 2010 and strengthen the pace of budgetary consolidation once the economy recovers, in order to ensure that the deficit is brought rapidly below the reference value thereby setting the debt to GDP ratio on a declining path; (iii) further improve expenditure rules by making them binding to all government tiers, reinforcing their monitoring and enforcement mechanisms and taking additional measures in the context of the General Review of Public Policies. Implement the structural reform programme in particular as regards the sustainability of the pension system.
The Commission has also adopted a report in application of the Stability and Growth Pact for France. This is because, although the deficit in 2008 is likely to have been close to the 3% reference value, it does not result from exceptional circumstances in the sense of the Treaty and the Stability and Growth Pact, and is not temporary as it is expected to remain above 3% in the following two years.
Latvia is currently in a severe economic downturn following years of above-potential economic growth. The global financial crisis has amplified the shock of the reversal of Latvia's own lending and house price boom by tightening credit availability and conditions, which in turn reinforced the steep decline of domestic demand.
The fiscal targets presented in the Convergence Programme are in line with those in the country's economic stabilisation plan, adopted in December, which foresees tax increases and expenditure cuts and is supported by international financial assistance (€7.5 billion in total of which €3.1 billion from the EU, see IP/09/18). Having exceeded 3% of GDP in 2008, the programme targets general government deficits of around 5% in 2009 and 2010, before falling below 3% in 2011.
In view of the above assessment, the commitments made in the framework of international financial assistance and also given the need to ensure sustainable convergence and a smooth participation in ERM II, Latvia is invited to: (i) submit to Parliament by the end of March 2009 the details of the supplementary budget adopted on 12 December 2008; take further measures if needed to achieve the targeted general government deficit in 2009 and continue the targeted fiscal consolidation thereafter; (ii) rigorously implement public sector nominal wage reductions to facilitate the alignment of whole-economy wages with productivity, thereby improving cost competitiveness; (iii) strengthen fiscal governance and transparency, by improving the medium-term budgetary framework and reinforcing spending controls, and strengthen financial market regulation and supervision; (iv) strengthen the supply side of the economy by wide-ranging structural reforms and by making efficient use of available EU structural funds.
In parallel with its assessment of the programme, the Commission is adopting a report under Article 104.3 of the Treaty. While the deficit is expected to have been close to the reference value in 2008, the excess over the reference value cannot be considered temporary as it would widen in 2009 and remain well above 3% of GDP in 2010. The general government debt, while still below the 60% reference value, is projected on a rapidly growing trend, increasing fourfold from less than 10% in 2007 to 45.4% of GDP in 2010.
Against a backdrop of weakening economic growth, the budget deficit is estimated to have reached 3.3% in 2008, according to the Stability Programme submitted early December (3.5% according to the Commission's January forecast). But the programme and the Commission also envisage a return to budgetary consolidation from 2009 onwards. The measures adopted by the government in response to the downturn are in line with the EU Recovery Plan and can be regarded as adequate given the deficit and debt ratios as well as the competitiveness challenge. However, there are risks to the achievement of the deficit and debt targets over the programme period stemming from the favourable macroeconomic scenario, the reliance on volatile revenue, the possibility of expenditure slippages and the lack of information on the consolidation measures in the outer years.
The debt ratio is targeted to fall gradually over the programme period to below the 60% but is subject to the risks mentioned above.
In view of the Commission assessment, Malta is invited to (i) resume fiscal consolidation as envisaged in the programme and ensure that the general government debt ratio is reduced accordingly, by spelling out the measures underlying the planned consolidation in the outer years; (ii) strengthen the medium-term budgetary framework and enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of public spending, including by accelerating the design and implementation of a comprehensive healthcare reform.
As the 2008 deficit is above the reference value, the Commission also adopted a report under the excessive deficit procedure. It concludes that, although the 2008 deficit remains close to the reference value and the planned excess can be considered temporary, the excess cannot be qualified as exceptional within the meaning of the Treaty and the Stability and Growth Pact as it reflects specific expenditure decisions rather than the impact of the economic downturn. However, on balance the examination of all the relevant factors seems positive.
The country-specific opinions are available at:
Background on the Stability and Growth Pact and on the EDP procedure
The Stability and Growth Pact requires the Commission to prepare a report whenever the deficit of a Member State exceeds the 3% of GDP reference value. The excessive deficit procedure is regulated by Article 104 of the Treaty and further clarified in Council Regulation (EC) No 1467/97, which is part of the Pact.
The budgetary targets submitted in the programmes and the Commission's opinion on the same programmes does not prejudge the deadlines for the correction of the deficits that will be recommended at a later. Revised in 2005, the Pact allows for taking into account the economic situation when making recommendations on the pace of the correction.
The reports are addressed to the Economic and Financial Committee, which formulates own opinions within a fortnight. Taking into account its report and the opinion of the Committee, the Commission needs to decide whether to recommend to the Council the existence of excessive deficits (Articles 104.5 and 104.6) and a deadline for their correction (Article 104.7).
Comparison of key macroeconomic and budgetary projections
Comparison of key macroeconomic and budgetary projections
Comparison of key macroeconomic and budgetary projections
Comparison of key macro economic and budgetary projections
Comparison of key macroeconomic and budgetary projections
 According to Council Regulation (EC) No 1466/97 on the strengthening of budgetary surveillance and the surveillance and coordination of economic policies, Member States must submit updated macroeconomic and budgetary projections every year. Such updates are called stability programmes in the case of countries that have adopted the euro, and convergence programmes in the case of those that have not yet done so. This regulation is also referred to as the 'preventive arm' of the Stability and Growth Pact.