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Categorized | Economy

Italy criticises EU over jobs and growth

Posted on April 30, 2014

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Italy’s finance minister has criticised the EU for paying only “lip service” to the need for more growth and jobs in Europe, saying the path to a balanced economic recovery lies through higher inflation and a weaker euro.

    In an interview with the Financial Times, Pier Carlo Padoan rejected suggestions that Italy’s new government under Matteo Renzi, prime minister, was looking for a backdoor route to evade budget deficit reduction targets set for Rome by the European Commission. “Growth will not be achieved through short-cuts,” he said.

    Italy, which is emerging from the longest recession since the second world war, wrote to the European Commission this month asking to “deviate temporarily from the budget targets”, citing exceptional circumstances. The request has raised worries in Brussels that the new administration wants to return to the old spending ways that led to Italy’s €2.1tn debt mountain.

    However, Mr Padoan was adamant Italy was not seeking to renegotiate the so-called fiscal compact, which obliges Italy to reach and maintain a balanced structural budget while also reducing public debt. “We are going in the same direction, but at a slower speed,” he said, adding Italy would stick to a deficit target of 2.6 per cent of national income this year.

    Still, the former chief economist for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development insisted the EU needed to seize the window of opportunity opened by benign bond markets and do more to revive its flagging growth. He said EU governments had already done much to repair the financial sector and advance structural economic reform, but on growth and jobs “we have paid a lot of lip service to it but not done enough”.

    Italy would seek to use its six-month EU presidency, starting in July, to complete this “unfinished chapter of the adjustment process”, he said. This would include a deepening of the single market as well as reforms for getting more credit flowing to the continent’s small and medium-sized enterprises.

    Mr Padoan said Italy would not seek to change the intensity of commission surveillance. But he said Brussels should broaden the “focus” of the economic indicators it chose to look at, for example paying greater attention to the composition of spending cuts and tax rises. He also warned that the commission should take the same attitude vis-à-vis different countries in the eurozone, regardless of their political clout. “I would have liked to see a more symmetric adjustment in the euro area,” he said, when asked about Germany’s large current account surplus.

    The finance minister also warned that eurozone deflationary pressures as well as the strength of the euro could prove stumbling blocks on the way to a recovery. “A lower exchange rate would be useful in the same way that higher inflation rates would be useful,” he said, echoing this week’s call for a lower euro by Manuel Valls, France’s premier.

    Mr Padoan said the ECB should look at different options to ensure that prices did not edge any lower. “I would be in favour of instruments that facilitate the flowing of credit to SMEs,” he said.

    In depth

    Austerity Europe

    EU unemployment

    Europeans are braced for a new age of austerity as governments across the region take action to eliminate unsustainable budget deficits

    Mr Padoan said Italy was ready to do its part to boost growth in the EU by implementing more structural reforms, including a shake-up of the labour market. So far, the government has only presented broad guidelines on its plans. These need to be discussed by parliament, with no reform expected until the autumn.

    The finance minister said the government was ready for a confrontation with the unions, particularly on the principle that wages should be more closely linked to productivity. But he also said the administration would stay away from changing Article 18 of the labour statute protecting workers in companies of more than 15 employees from dismissal on economic grounds. “This is an ideological discourse . . . there are many other things that need to be reformed,” he noted.

    Asked why his government should be able to pass meaningful structural reforms when its predecessors have largely failed, Mr Padoan said that the mood in Italy had changed and that there was greater urgency than in the past. “If this government does not deliver . . . then this is very difficult for the country”.