Italy Strikes Budget Deal With EU, Dodging Sanctions Process

(Bloomberg) -- The European Commission decided against launching a disciplinary procedure against Italy over its budget after the country’s populist government pledged to rein in its spending. Italian assets rallied.

Following a meeting of its top officials, the commission, the EU’s executive arm, concluded that concessions by Italy on its budget meant the country didn’t warrant a triggering of the so-called excessive deficit procedure that could eventually lead to financial penalties.

“Intensive negotiations over the last few weeks have resulted in a solution for 2019,” Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday. “Let’s be clear, the solution is not ideal but it avoids opening the excessive deficit procedure at this stage and it corrects the situation of serious non-compliance.”

Italian 10-year bond yields fell as much as 18 basis points to 2.75 percent, the lowest level in over three months while the FTSE MIB index of shares rallied as much as 1.8 percent with banking stocks leading gains.

The decision comes after weeks of negotiations between Italian and EU officials and caps a months-long tussle with Brussels that roiled markets. It also marks a climbdown for the country’s firebrand populist leaders, who rose to power with expensive election promises including a lower retirement age and more welfare benefits.

Brussels and Rome met each other half way for the compromise to be reached, as Italian populists held off on their most ambitious spending plans, while the Commission turned a blind eye on Italy’s failure to comply with the obligation to lower its structural deficit next year -- which excludes one-off expenditures and the effects of the economic cycle.

Budget Concessions

As part of the deal, Italy cut its deficit target for next year to 2.04 percent of gross domestic product and shaved about 4 billion euros ($4.6 billion) off its spending plans. Rome’s initial plan for a deficit of 2.4 percent was rejected by officials in Brussels because it was in breach of the EU’s budget rules, while analysis by the commission last month suggested that the deficit would actually be close to 3 percent.

While far from what the EU had hoped, the deal is a relief for EU officials, who had fretted for months over the possible impact a prolonged budget standoff could have on the country’s finances and the euro-area economy.

"The composition of the announced measures and the budget overall still raise concern," Dombrovskis said, adding that Italy urgently needed to restore confidence in its economy and put its debt on a downward path.

Discussions were further complicated by measures taken by the French government to calm the Yellow Vest protests, which will likely push the country’s budget deficit over EU limit next year. The move by France gave rise to complaints from Rome that Paris gets special treatment when it comes to its budget.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.