Open Europe Blog

As you may have noticed, yesterday saw numerous governments across Europe unveiling their latest budgets for the coming year. Rather than just being a coincidence, this is down to the fact that yesterday was the deadline for eurozone governments to submit their budget plans to the European Commission – ‘Budget Deadline Day’, if you will.

As part of the ‘Six-pack’ set of rules, eurozone governments must have their budgets endorsed by the Commission, although the ability to actually force changes to the budget plans is limited for those countries which are not missing their targets already (except for significant peer pressure).

As with football’s transfer deadline day, there were some frantic negotiations, albeit without the minute to minute media coverage. Below, we take a look at the budgets of the Italian, Irish and Portuguese governments.

Italy
Italy yesterday unveiled its new ‘Stability Law’ – the budget guidelines for 2014-16. There’s some encouraging stuff in there, notably a package of tax cuts for businesses and workers worth €10.6bn over three years (of which €2.5bn to be cut in 2014). Nothing massive, but it’s a start. The money to cover for these cuts is due to come from a number of public spending cuts. However, the draft budget will now have to be adopted by the Italian parliament, and some of the measures may change.

Prime Minister Enrico Letta has confirmed Italy aims to bring its deficit down to 2.5% of GDP by the end of next year. That said, the problem for Italy remains its weak growth – which in turn threatens its fiscal targets. Last week, for instance, the Italian government had to adopt a set of urgent measures to find a further €1.6bn and make sure the deficit stays below 3% of GDP this year. Unlike other countries, the budget may hold less importance for Italy’s economic future with the focus now on much needed political reform and improvement in the business environment.

Ireland
Debate over the Irish budget has been going on for some time, and the government managed to secure a lower level of headline cuts than expected ahead of time – €2.5bn compared to €3.1bn. However, the budget remains controversial with the Irish Independent running the front page headline, “Unkindest cuts”, because they fall on pensions, healthcare and unemployment benefits for young people.

For the most part, although this budget was about tinkering around the edges rather than making the huge cuts we have seen before, the government focused on adjusting lesser known taxes to reap numerous small savings. Interestingly, the government also committed to reducing tax evasion and tackling the view of the country as a ‘corporate tax haven’. It will be key to see if this impacts the number of multinationals locating in Ireland and if it has any knock-on impact on economic growth.

Portugal
Of the three, this is probably the most concerning budget. Following a difficult summer for Portugal, politically at least, the government has once again been forced to find a further €3.2bn in cuts. However, the government has once again taken the same approach by heaping the cuts of public sector workers pay (up to 12% in parts) and on pensions. Action on these areas is needed. However, it has also been repeatedly struck down by the Constitutional Court. This might be setting the scene for another showdown.

This has evoked concerns from within the Commission, and it will be interesting to see whether a full endorsement is forthcoming. Portugal also confirmed it will miss this year’s deficit target and the continuing push to ease next year’s target suggests little confidence that it will meet that one either. The good news is that Portugal’s borrowing costs remain well below their peak, and some market access once it exits its bailout next year seems likely. That said, unless it can get a hold of the public sector reform needed, some additional aid still looks likely.

Overall then, a bit of a mixed bag. Few marquee measures, but some positive moves in terms of focusing cuts on spending rather than tax hikes.

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