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EU warns Italy, several others over 2017 budget plans

Associated Press Associated Press 16/11/2016 By LORNE COOK, Associated Press
European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs Pierre Moscovici speaks during a media conference at EU headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016. The European Union is warning eight countries including Italy, Portugal and Spain that their budget plans for next year might not comply with the rules governing the euro single currency. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo) © The Associated Press European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs Pierre Moscovici speaks during a media conference at EU headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016. The European Union is warning eight countries including Italy, Portugal and Spain that their budget plans for next year might not comply with the rules governing the euro single currency. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

BRUSSELS — The European Union on Wednesday warned several countries including Italy that their budget plans for next year might not comply with the rules governing the euro single currency.

The EU's executive Commission singled out Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, Lithuania and Slovenia as countries where "the planned fiscal adjustments fall short, or risk doing so, of what is required." Spain and Portugal, already the subject of EU "excessive debt procedures," were warned that their plans might not work either.

Under euro rules, the 19 eurozone countries must keep their budget deficits at or below 3 percent of annual GDP.

The Commission says slow growth and increased uncertainty driven by factors including Britain's exit from the EU and the U.S. election of Donald Trump are weighing on European economies.

Only five countries — Germany, Estonia, Luxembourg, Slovakia and the Netherlands — are complying entirely with the rules enshrined in the Stability and Growth Pact.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said "those that can afford it need to invest more, while those which have less fiscal space should pursue reforms and growth-friendly fiscal consolidation."

Tensions have been particularly high between Italy and the Commission, which supervises the budget plans of euro countries and can order corrections or take action against states that fail to comply, .

Italy's already shaky economy has been rocked by the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees and a series of devastating earthquakes. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose government's future could be decided in a referendum in a few weeks, has been requesting budget relief.

The EU's top economy official, Pierre Moscovici, acknowledged that Rome is dealing with unusual circumstances.

"We will take that into account," Moscovici told reporters. On refugees, he said that Italy has been bearing a "responsibility that is not just national but collective," for the rest of the EU.

"The earthquakes will have a durable impact," he noted.

Spain and Portugal were already under excessive deficit procedures for their deficits. But good news came when they were told they would not be denied access to EU structural funds. The funds support economic development by providing money for things like regional development, agriculture or fisheries. Spain's new government will also be given time to submit an updated budget plan.

While acknowledging the new leeway given to countries, Commission officials denied that the rule book is being thrown out the window.

"We continue to apply the Stability and Growth Pact," said Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis.

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