Peter Spiegel Oct 23 18:44
If you read the EU’s budget rules, it appears to be a cut and dried affair: if the European Commission has concerns that a eurozone country’s budget is in “particularly serious non-compliance” with deficit or debt limits, it has to inform the government of its concerns within one week of the budget’s submission. Such contact is the first step towards sending the budget back entirely for revision.
As the FT was the first to report this week, the Commission decided to notify five countries – Italy, France, Austria, Slovenia and Malta – that their budgets may be problematic on Wednesday. Helpfully, the Italian government posted the “strictly confidential” letter it received from the Commission’s economic chief, Jyrki Katainen, on its website today.
But at day one of the EU summit in Brussels, the letter – and Italy’s decision to post it – suddenly became the subject of a very public tit-for-tat between José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing Commission president, and Matteo Renzi, the Italian Prime Minister.
Barroso fired the first shot at a pre-summit news conference, expressing surprise and annoyance that Renzi’s government had decided to make the letter public. For good measure, he took a pop at the Italian press, which in recent days has been reporting that Barroso was the one pushing for a hard line against Rome, and implying he was motivated by his desire to score political points back home in Portugal, where he has long been rumoured as a potential presidential candidate after leaving the Commission:
The first thing I will say is this: If you look at the Italian press, if you look at most of what is reported about what I’ve said or what the Commission has said, most of this news is absolutely false, surreal, having nothing to do with reality. And if they coincide with reality, I think it’s by chance.
Aside from his swipe at Italian newspapers, Barroso was clearly annoyed at the Italian government, saying Katainen’s letter was intended to be private correspondence to begin talks over trying to get Italy’s budget back in line with EU rules:
Regarding the letter from vice-president Katainen yesterday, sent to his Italian colleague, the decision to publish it on the website of the ministry of finance is a unilateral decision by the Italian government. The Commission was not in favour of the publication because we are continuing consultations with various governments. These are informal consultations and in some cases they are quite technical, and we think it’s better to have this kind of consultations in an atmosphere of trust. But the Italian government contacted the Vice President Katainen telling him that he would publish the letter and of course we do not object to the publication, it is their right, but again, this is not true it is the Commission which pressed the government to publish the letter. If we wanted to publish it, the Commission could publish the letter itself.
When he arrived at the summit a few hours later, Renzi expressed cheeky bewilderment at Barroso’s diatribe, arguing that Italy was in favour of transparency, particularly in the digital age:
I’m surprised that President Barroso is surprised, in the sense that the letter was previewed here [in Brussels], in an important international newspaper, the Financial Times, and then an important Italian newspaper also had a scoop. They indicated five countries that would receive the letter – which is exactly what happened. So this is the moment of total transparency. I think the days of secret letters are over in this building. With Italy, open data will be total. We want everything to be clear with Brussels because it is the only way for citizens to understand . It’s just he beginning. Turning over a new leaf, after next week [under Jean-Claude Juncker], we ask that any sensitive data that commission sends should be published.
There is still a week to go for Katainen and Barroso to decide whether Italy’s budget is actually in violation of EU rules and needs to be sent home for revisions. It will be interesting to see if that decision is made publicly or not.