Today sees the release of the European Commission’s annual review of its members’ economic and debt-cutting policies. It’s a big moment.
This is the point at which we get confirmation that France, Spain, Slovenia and others will be given more time to get their budget deficits down to target. We already know that France will get an extra two years, while Spain will get another two extra years (to 2016) to bring back its deficit below 3 percent. That comes on top of the 1-year leeway given last year.
This is the austerity versus growth debate in action. But let’s be clear, whatever the rhetoric, this is anything but an end to austerity. What it is, is an invitation to cut more slowly for longer. And in return, there will be extra pressure to press ahead with structural reforms to make economies more competitive and help create jobs. Spain already has, France has barely started and it is there that a lot of the concern rests. If Europe’s second largest economy fails to revitalize itself it will be a big blow to the EU project and further erode France’s political ability to drive it in tandem with Germany.
The European Commission is likely to ask France to tackle its labour laws which makes it difficult to fire someone on a permanent contract, making employers reluctant to hire. It also has the highest minimum wage in Europe and will be asked to open up closed professions like taxi drivers, the legal professions and the health sector, and allow competition into railways and electricity. Paris is under internal pressure too. Yesterday its central bank governor, Christian Noyer, said it must cut public spending after Standard & Poor’s declared that a further rating downgrade was probable absent further deficit-cutting measures – this at a time when the economy has just slid back into recession. Noyer also said it was inevitable that the French would have to work longer. That adds up to something of a perfect storm for a Socialist government already facing stiff opposition from its allies.
Outside the euro zone, Brussels could announce that Hungary can exit its excessive deficit procedure, which would be another political coup for Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his unorthodox policy approach. Budapest is working on a standback on the apparent success of Orbanomics, defying all expectations. The man he appointed to run the central bank will hold a news conference on his plans to boost growth. Yesterday, he and his colleagues cut interest rates for the 10th consecutive month and flagged more to come.