BRUSSELS — Europe’s economy commissioner on Wednesday urged the Italian government to quickly provide any new information it might have to explain its high debt levels or face the prospect of imminent legal action.
Pierre Moscovici told reporters that “we stand ready to take into account any new elements that Italy may put forward, but let’s not waste time.”
“The ball is in Italy’s court,” he said.
The European Commission, which supervises budget plans in the 28 member states, says that Italy’s public debt stood at 132.2% of GDP in 2018, far above the EU’s 60% limit. Debt is forecast to rise to 135% this year.
Moscovici said the commission is “committed to an intelligent and flexible application of our fiscal rules,” but he added that “no one should be in doubt that we will apply those rules if the criteria are not fulfilled.”
The commission believes an “excessive deficit procedure” should be launched against Italy, and the EU’s financial economics committee agrees that action is warranted. EU member states must agree for it to happen, and Moscovici expects eurozone countries to back the commission’s findings at a finance ministers’ meeting Thursday.
Italy could face billions of euros (dollars) in fines, although that is unlikely.
The threat of action comes at a time of rising tensions between Brussels and the Italian government, in particular Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini, who has been emboldened by his right-wing League party’s strong gains in the May EU elections.
Italy’s debt load is the second-highest in Europe, after Greece. Many fear new financial turmoil in Europe should Italy lose control of spending, but the government in Rome says it must spend more to jumpstart growth after years of austerity.
“Italy’s debt ratio is one of the highest in the world,” Moscovici said, and noted that debt servicing alone was equivalent to about 1,000 euros ($1,132) a year for every Italian citizen.
“The high debt is a major vulnerability for the economy and it’s in Italy’s interest to tackle this,” he said.
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