World News

Austria opposes loosening EU budget rules, finance minister tells paper

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria opposes any loosening of the European Union’s rules on national budgets even to enable spending on climate measures, its new finance minister said in remarks published on Tuesday.

The European Commission is responsible for making sure member countries do not overspend public resources. It annually assesses whether governments’ spending, revenues and investments are reasonably balanced and do not excessively flout debt and deficit ceilings set under the EU Stability and Growth Pact.

Worried that environmental and other climate-related costs could worsen governments’ fiscal positions, the Commission says it will now also check the pace of governments’ transition toward a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.

It is unclear how this new attention to the fiscal impact of climate policies could change the way Brussels puts pressure on states to correct their fiscal policies. But Austrian Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel told the German newspaper Die Welt he would oppose any loosening of the pact.

“At the moment the pact’s rules are being interpreted too generously by some countries. I would therefore be in favor of tightening the Stability and Growth Pact’s criteria rather then constantly loosening them further,” said Bluemel, a close ally of conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

A decision on how to treat green investments has not been made yet, an EU official said last week. That could come as part of a review of EU fiscal rules that Brussels plans to unveil in February.

France, Italy and other southern countries of the bloc are keen to soften the rules, seen by many as excessively rigid and complicated. That could spur growth and favor the green transition, supporters of the move say.

But Germany has so far resisted changes, fearing fiscal leeway could unleash uncontrolled spending in some countries and cause financial crises.

Bluemel made clear Austria would take a similarly hawkish line. Its new ruling coalition – an alliance between Kurz’s conservatives and the left-wing Greens – was formed this month.

“The idea of the Stability and Growth Pact was well conceived but euro (zone) countries have too often not stuck to it. New exceptions should therefore not be defined but rather the penalties for breaches should be increased,” Bluemel told Die Welt when asked about loosening it for green measures.

“Before one discusses what further exceptions there should be, states should first stick to what has been agreed.”

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)