Following three hours of questioning at European Parliament, a visibly exhausted Pierre Moscovici switched to German in a final effort to assuage skepticism from certain members of European Parliament. "As commisioner, I will fully respect the pact," he said.
Moscovici was French finance minister from 2012 until this April and will become European commissioner for economic and financial affairs when the new Commission takes office next month. But can he be taken at his word? There is room for doubt.
In response to the unprecedented euro-zone debt crisis, the European Union agreed to strengthen its Stability and Growth Pact in recent years. Member states gave the European Commission in Brussels greater leeway to monitor national budgets and also bestowed it with rights to levy stiffer fines for countries that violate those rules. Smaller member states have already been forced to comply. Still, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel herself has told confidants, the real test will come when a major member state is forced to submit to the EU corset.
That time is now. And the big EU member state in question is France. The development is creating a dilemma for Merkel.
The issue is far greater than a few tenths of a percentage point in the French budget deficit. At stake are France's national pride and sovereignty -- and the question as to whether the lessons of the crisis can actually be applied in practice. Also at stake is the euro-zone's trustworthiness, and whether member states will once again fritter away global faith in the common currency by not abiding by their own internal rules. "The markets are watching us," says one member of the German government -- and he doesn't sound particularly confident that the world will be impressed.
The markets are indeed jittery. The German economy is growing more sluggishly than expected and is no longer strong enough to buoy the rest of the euro zone. Interest rates for Greek government bonds have suddenly surged, likely because of domestic political instability, rising close to the levels that threatened to push the country into bankruptcy in early 2010. Meanwhile, the European Central Bank has already used up a good deal of the instruments it might have used to combat a new crisis.
Euro fears are returning, certainly not a good time to sow additional seeds of doubt. But if experts in Brussels are right, France is doing exactly that with its 2015 draft budget, submitted last week. It suggests that the French government is on the verge of delivering even less than the already low expectations of the European Commission. One high-ranking EU diplomat scoffed at the 60-page draft budget, saying it gave the impression that it had been written mostly by "poets and alchemists." The document itself speaks of "substantial efforts since 2012" and "unprecedented fiscal consolidation measures."
Paris Wants to Increase Debt
The tone doesn't become more subdued until near the end. Instead of reducing borrowing in 2015 to the 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) permitted under the pact, Paris is now planning deficit spending of 4.3 percent. The country doesn't plan to bring itself back in line with Stability Pact rules until 2017. In addition, the sovereign debt ratio is to rise from 92.2 percent of GDP in 2013 to 97.2 percent next year. The numbers look markedly better in many other euro-zone countries, with deficits largely under control. That includes the majority of the crisis countries, which have subjected themselves to tight austerity and reform programs since 2010 in exchange for bailout loans.
Against that background, the draft budget from Paris struck many officials at the Brussels headquarters of the Commission's Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs (ECFIN) as being particularly brazen. But what can they do? And how can they command respect?
Under the provisions of the tightened rules, the European Commission has until Oct. 29 to either approve or reject the budget. Outgoing European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs Jyrki Katainen, a Finnish hardliner on budget policy, appears determined to enforce the Stability Pact rules. Although he is moving to a new post, he will still have similar responsibilities when he takes his position as vice president of the incoming European Commission.
Some smaller euro-zone countries have already felt the brunt of the new pressure coming from Brussels, including Belgium. In December 2011, the European Commission threatened to levy fines against the country if it didn't present a 2012 budget conforming to the Growth and Stability Pact's rules. "They would have had to pay an €800 to €900 million fine," Olli Rehn, the currency commissioner at the time, told EU auditors last week. To avoid the penalty, the Belgian government made cuts to unemployment benefits and raised the age for early retirement.
Are All EU Member States Equal?
But does the euro stability pact truly apply equally to all member states, or are there countries that are more equal than others? That's the "€100,000 question," one German EU diplomat says. Smaller euro-zone nations indicated at the most recent meeting of EU finance ministers that they are unwilling to accept unequal treatment. "In Luxembourg, the principle of adhering to the applicable rules applies to both large and smaller countries. Rules create the stability and security that we need," says Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel. However, he adds, the provisions of the stability pact also allow for some flexibility.
During his visit to Berlin at the end of September, however, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls took the preventative measure of forbidding any comparisons with smaller countries. "I will not permit people to discuss France in this context," he said tersely during a reception at the French Embassy. "France is a big country." Regardless whether the EU Commission demands more reforms and tougher savings, he said, "We won't do it." Michel Sapin, his current finance minister, upped the ante last week, saying, "we won't cut more anywhere and we also won't raise taxes." He added that the €21 billion in austerity measures already undertaken by France through the end of 2015 were sufficient.
Still, even this pledge is on shaky ground. Observers at the High Council for Public Finances, a French public finance watchdog founded in 2012, are critical, arguing that some assumptions in the budget either haven't been proven or are "very unlikely." For example, in the midst of a crisis, there is nothing showing that consumption in private households will increase by 0.7 percent as the budget suggests. In addition, the High Council notes, some of the revenues calculated as part of the draft budget are likely to disappear -- such as the €0.5 billion that will go missing as a result of the French government's mid-October decision to drop plans for a levy on heavy trucks.
The European Commission, which has given no indication yet that it has been intimidated by the harsh statements coming from French officials, is likely to have similar reservations. In the coming days, the Commission is expected to call on France to make improvements to the budget. Sources in Brussels say that if Paris doesn't comply, the Commission will reject the French budget on Oct. 29, one of the last days of its current term. "Europe is at a crossroads," says Manfred Weber, the chairman of the conservative European People's Party group in European Parliament, which represents Christian Democrats from across the Continent. "The European Commission's credibility is at stake with its review of the French and also the Italian budgets. France's budget has to be rejected. President Hollande needs to make improvements."
Merkel Likely To Avoid Showdown
Still, it's a showdown that Berlin would like to avoid, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is hoping for the support of incoming EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. He will likely to want to sidestep a spat with France at the beginning of his five-year term. The conservative French daily Le Figaro recently wrote that an outright rejection of the budget would have the impact of an "atomic bomb". The signals coming out so far suggest there will ultimately be a compromise, and likely a dubious one at that.
Speaking in German parliament on Thursday, Merkel played the part of the disciplinarian. "All, and at this point I will reiterate this again, all member states must fully respect the strengthened rules of the Stability and Growth Pact," she said. The chancellor's words reflected the sentiment of the members of parliament responsible for fiscal and EU policy.
"If we make an exception for Paris here, then we are calling into question the entire stability pact," said Gunther Krichbaum, a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and head of the European Affairs Committee in the Bundestag. "France and Germany have done this before," he said, referring to past violations in 2003 and 2004. "We should not allow it to happen again."
Back then, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac unceremoniously moved to soften the Stability Pact's criteria because they either could not or would not adhere to its rules. Even today, the move is considered to have been a serious blunder -- one that is often used against Merkel when she calls on other countries to strictly adhere to the rules.
Firm Words, But Little Action
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has also had firm words for his French colleagues. "The request for an extension can't seriously mean that nothing gets done," he recently told French Finance Minister Sapin during a meeting.
But behind the scenes in Berlin, a much softer tone can be heard. "You just can't do that with France, not with France," one German EU diplomat close to the foreign minister and chancellor said weeks ago. One high-ranking member of Merkel's government says that a formal rejection of France's budget would "massively burden German-French ties." He added: "It would be presented as if we were somehow responsible because of our obsession with austerity."
In closed-door talks, Merkel's European policy advisor, Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, has reportedly assured the French that Germany will oppose any efforts to impose a fine against France if the Commission decides to initiate debt proceedings against Paris. In return for its loyalty, Berlin wants Paris to stick to a detailed timetable for implementing reforms.
Some officials in Brussels and Berlin are also pushing to unshelve one of Merkel's pet ideas, so-called "contractual agreements" -- written agreements between the European Commission and a euro-zone country that commit that member state to undertake specific savings measures or clearly delineated structural reforms. Under the original plan, the country could then obtain financial aid from a special fund in return. For France, the reward would be a further suspension of the deficit rules. "We need a calculable and perhaps even an actionable agreement between Brussels and Paris," German government sources say.
Little Progress in Paris
Sending any outward sign of trust to a country that has already been facing proceedings since 2009 for an "excessive deficit" is problematic. The European Commission has already given France two reprieves for getting its public finances in order, but Paris has shown little progress. Neither conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy nor his Socialist successor François Hollande has managed to get the budget under control. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Valls is facing an open rebellion within the left wing of his party and has only a thin majority in parliament. Nor is it certain that French leaders would accept pressure from the German government to enter into a contract with bureaucrats in Brussels they often view disparagingly.
Early this week, French and German economics and finance ministers plan to meet in Berlin. The end of the week will see an EU summit in Brussels.
The talks are continuing, but deadline pressures and worries are growing. The issue, says European People's Party parliamentary group head Weber, is not about who is right. "The financial markets have already fired a warning shot at the euro-zone states. A high level of credibility with debt rules is the prerequisite for preventing a new financial crisis."
Rehn also has no illusions. "Let me be clear: Reforms in France were not enough to justify the extension," the politician, who is now a member of the European Parliament, said last week. He argues that the reverse should be true. "First, reforms need to be delivered. Then we can talk about an extension." He went on to say that he wishes France's Pierre Moscovici "better success than I had" as an EU commissioner.
By Nikolaus Blome, Julia Amalia Heyer, Ralf Neukirch, Christoph Pauly, Gregor Peter Schmitz and Christoph Schult