(c) 2014, Bloomberg News.
(c) 2014, Bloomberg News.
BRUSSELS — The European Commission kept up pressure on France to trim its budget deficit, while signaling that nations should ease austerity to boost the euro-area economy's stuttering recovery.
The commission Monday called for countries across the 18-nation currency bloc to push through measures to create jobs and stimulate the economy, which is forecast to grow this year at less than half the speed of the U.S.
The European Union is trying to find a balance between enforcing budget discipline and stimulating growth after a whirlwind of anti-austerity and anti-EU sentiment swept across the continent in elections last month, revealing discontent from Athens to Paris and London.
"The efforts and sacrifices made across Europe have started to pay off," commission President Jose Barroso said in a statement. "The fundamental challenge for the EU now is political: how do we keep up support for reform as the pressure of the crisis recedes?"
While the euro economy exited recession almost a year ago and is predicted to expand 1.2 percent this year, some of the bloc's largest economies such as France and Italy are still struggling for growth while unemployment remains just below its 12 percent record.
In the wake of the anti-austerity voter backlash, the commission, which monitors national spending, warned against flouting German-inspired EU rules tightened in the wake of the debt crisis that exposed the weaknesses of public finances.
The rules cap deficits at 3 percent of gross domestic product, a level breached by seven of the euro area's economies last year.
Having a year ago granted France two more years, until 2015, to reach that target, the commission Monday said there's now no more room for maneuver, even as it forecast the goal to be missed.
"The government's intention to reduce the deficit mainly by tighter control of spending is the right approach," EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn told reporters in Brussels. "We're asking the government to spell out in more detail the measures it plans to achieve the structural effort required in 2015."
President Francois Hollande last week dismissed suggestions that France should slow the pace of deficit reduction after the anti-EU National Front party placed first in elections for the European Parliament, the first time it had done so in a nationwide vote.
Hollande has committed France to trimming the deficit to 3 percent of GDP next year. The EU predicts it will be 3.4 percent.
The commission told Italy, whose debt burden is the second highest in the euro area after Greece, that it must continue to make its economy more competitive and refused to grant Italy any leeway in meeting debt-reduction targets.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose party achieved the country's biggest electoral victory in more than half a century, has, with Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan, been pushing for the EU to allow a more expansive economic policy to favor employment and growth.
"Italy has committed to important reforms; now the reform momentum should be intensified so that Italy can create the conditions for a stronger and more durable recovery in growth and job creation," Rehn said.
Six countries — Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands and Slovakia — met budgetary targets and should be taken out of the excessive deficit procedure, the commission said.
The commission said that euro nations, particularly those that had already successfully reduced their deficit and debt, should ensure they carried through with other economy-boosting reforms.
The Netherlands, for example, was told to make faster progress in improving the functioning of its housing market, while Spain should increase the "cost efficiency" of health care and reform its tax system.
Germany, already under EU investigation for its current account surplus, "appears to have scope for enhancing the growth-friendliness of its public finances," the commission said today.
The commission's verdicts require an endorsement by EU finance ministers. They are scheduled to meet to discuss later this month.
_ With assistance from Jonathan Stearns and Gaspard Sebag in Brussels.