First glance

Assessing the Ecofin compromise on fiscal rules reform

The compromise reached by the Ecofin Council is imperfect. But it is still a big step forward.

Publishing date
21 December 2023
A meeting of Ecofin ministers in the European council

On 20 December, the European Union’s Economic and Financial (Ecofin) Council reached a compromise on the reform of the EU fiscal rules. It represents a reasonable outcome. In some respects, it improves on the European Commission’s legislative proposal in April 2023. In other respects, it is worse. Compared to the current rules, however, it is a big step forward. 

The Good:

  1. The country-specific nature of fiscal adjustment requirements, determined by debt sustainability analysis (DSA), is mostly preserved. This was the core idea of the European Commission. It will make implementation more likely. 
  2. The use of a net expenditure path (expenditure net of interest payments and cyclical items) as the main operational target and the general and national escape clauses proposed by the Commission are also preserved. This will make the system less procyclical.
  3. While the Commission will run the DSA, the latter must be Council approved, published and replicable. This will increase collective ownership over the new methods.
  4. Some flaws in the Commission proposal have been fixed. The ‘debt safeguard’ that requires a minimum speed of debt reduction regardless of what the DSA says has been reformulated. The most important change is that the period over which the debt reduction is assessed only starts after countries have reduced their deficits below 3%. This gives high-deficit countries a chance to comply with the safeguard.
  5. The current Recovery and Resilience Programmes (RRP), which expire in 2026, will not be enough for countries to qualify for an extension of the adjustment period from four to seven years. EU countries will also be required to continue the reform efforts and nationally financed investment levels over the remainder of the four to five year period covered by their medium-term fiscal-structural plan. This generates good incentives. 
  6. The independent European Fiscal Board is given a meaningful role in monitoring the implementation of the new rules. 

The Bad:

  1. The Ecofin has agreed on a new ‘deficit resilience safeguard’ which requires countries to continue fiscal adjustment until they reach ‘a common resilience margin’ of 1.5% of GDP below the 3% deficit benchmark. The idea of requiring a ‘safety margin’ is not wrong. However, the safeguard micromanages the adjustment process (a minimum of 0.25—0.4% of GDP per annum) and the margin of 1.5% may prove too tough for some countries. In Italy’s case, the margin translates into a structural primary balance requirement of over 4% of GDP.
  2. The Ecofin seems to have reached a half-baked compromise on the implementation of the excessive deficit procedure (EDP). The annual minimum adjustment steps of 0.5% of GDP may initially exclude interest payments. However, the adjustment steps must include the interest payments after 2027. This will make life easier for the governments that negotiated the compromise, but harder for their successors, without any gain. For reasons explained in a previous piece, it makes little sense to measure these adjustment requirements in a way that includes interest payment.
  3. The financing of Council-endorsed public investment—particularly climate-related investment—should have been excluded from the application of the safeguards (while remaining included in the DSA). Instead, there is only a limited exclusion for RRP projects and national co-financing of EU funds in 2025 and 2026. Short-term fixes were given priority over politically more difficult but long-lasting reform.
  4. The role of national independent fiscal institutions (IFIs) has been grossly weakened compared to the Commission’s proposal. While the Commission proposal required IFIs to assess national compliance with the net expenditure path agreed with the Council, the Council’s version merely states that national governments ‘may request’ such an assessment. While EU governments are happy to have the European Fiscal Board monitor the Commission’s actions, they are clearly not happy to have their national fiscal board review theirs.

In the below table, there is an assessment of the fiscal adjustment consequences of the deal by Zsolt Darvas, Lennard Welslau and me (to the best of our knowledge). The methodology is explained here  and the code for replication is available here.


About the authors

  • Jeromin Zettelmeyer

    Jeromin Zettelmeyer has been Director of Bruegel since September 2022. Born in Madrid in 1964, Jeromin was previously a Deputy Director of the Strategy and Policy Review Department of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Prior to that, he was Dennis Weatherstone Senior Fellow (2019) and Senior Fellow (2016-19) at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Director-General for Economic Policy at the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (2014-16); Director of Research and Deputy Chief Economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (2008-2014), and an IMF staff member, where he worked in the Research, Western Hemisphere, and European II Departments (1994-2008).

    Jeromin holds a Ph.D. in economics from MIT (1995) and an economics degree from the University of Bonn (1990). He is a Research Fellow in the International Macroeconomics Programme of the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), and a member of the CEPR’s Research and Policy Network on European economic architecture, which he helped found. He is also a member of CESIfo. He has published widely on topics including financial crises, sovereign debt, economic growth, transition to market, and Europe’s monetary union. His recent research interests include EMU economic architecture, sovereign debt, debt and climate, and the return of economic nationalism in advanced and emerging market countries.    

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