BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission may say on Wednesday that Italy is breaching European Union rules over its growing public debt, starting a process that could lead to financial sanctions and stricter oversight of the country’s fiscal policy.
Italy narrowly averted such disciplinary action late last year, when it reached an agreement with the Commission over its 2019 budget. The Commission had initially rejected the budget, saying it would not cut Italy’s large debt.
Official data released in April showed debt grew to 132.2% of GDP in 2018, the largest ratio in the EU after bailed-out Greece. It is set to expand further this year and next, according to EU Commission’s forecasts, in spite of EU rules that say it should fall.
Italy’s eurosceptic government has so far shown little inclination to reduce its debt. Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has instead urged a relaxation of EU fiscal rules.
In a letter sent last week, the Commission, which has a legal duty to monitor EU countries’ budgets, asked Rome to explain the worsening of its public finances .
Italy replied two days later, blaming an economic downturn for the rising debt and promising to respect the EU’s fiscal rules in the next budget.
The possible next steps are:
June 5: The Commission may say in a report on Italy’s public finances that there is room to open a disciplinary procedure over the country’s expanding debt.
June 11-19: If the Commission considers the procedure justified, EU financial ministry officials on the bloc’s Economic and Financial Committee have two weeks, until June 19, to decide whether to back the EU executive’s assessment. The decision might coincide with regular meetings of the bloc’s finance ministers on June 13-14.
If national officials back the debt report, the Commission could at any time recommend the formal opening of a disciplinary procedure.
June 20-21: EU leaders meet in Brussels for a quarterly summit. The meeting could offer Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte a chance to discuss the possible debt procedure with the outgoing Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker.
July 8-9: EU finance ministers gather in Brussels for a regular monthly meeting, where they are expected to decide on the possible formal opening of disciplinary proceedings against Italy, if recommended by the Commission.
Once the procedure is started, Italy will be required to adopt measures, such as higher taxes and spending cuts, to correct its deviation from fiscal targets within three or six months from the beginning of the procedure.
July 29: If the EU finance ministers open a disciplinary procedure, July 29 would be the deadline for the Commission to propose what would be unprecedented financial sanctions against Rome. If deemed in “serious” breach of EU rules, the Italian government could be required to lodge with the Commission a non-interest bearing deposit worth 0.2% of GDP - around 3.5 billion euros ($3.9 billion).
Aug. 7: Euro zone governments would have 10 days, until Aug. 7, to block by qualified majority a Commission proposal to impose sanctions.
Sept. 20: Italy presents updated growth and public finance targets, which will be the framework of its 2020 budget.
Mid-October: First possible deadline for Italy to meet, in its 2020 draft budget, the fiscal requirements imposed by the EU in the disciplinary procedure.
Failure to act could trigger further sanctions, including a fine of up to 0.2% of GDP, the suspension of billions of euros in EU funds and closer fiscal monitoring by the European Commission and the European Central Bank.
Further failure to cooperate could incur even stricter penalties. Those might include a fine of up to 0.5% of GDP, a cut of multi-billion-euro loans from the European Investment Bank, and EU precautionary monitoring over Italy’s plans to issue new debt.
Nov. 1: The new Commission is expected to take office, unless the mandate of the existing executive is extended.
Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio in Brussels; additional reporting by Giuseppe Fonte and Gavin Jones in Rome; editing by Larry King