EU in slow progress on deficit cuts

Anti-cuts protesters in Madrid in 2013 Image copyright AP
Image caption The scale of Spain's spending cuts has been unpopular, but it still failed to meet EU targets

New figures from the European Commission show that EU governments are gradually making progress with their financial problems.

The budget deficit - the amount of new borrowing they undertake - came down last year.

For the whole EU, it fell from 3.9% of GDP in 2012 to 3.3%. For the eurozone, the decline was from 3.7% to 3%.

But they are still borrowing substantial amounts, so the total accumulated debt continued to rise.

That pattern affected both the eurozone and the European Union as a whole.

The eurozone figure is in line - just - with the upper limit that the EU expects member countries to meet.

Of course, there was a wide variation within the eurozone, with some countries borrowing a lot less than maximum.

Germany's government finances were close to being balanced: no new borrowing. Luxembourg managed a small surplus, which means it reduced its government debt slightly.

Others still couldn't comply with the 3% of GDP limit. France and Spain were the two big economies that went over that level, while Italy was just in line with it.

Greek 'milestone'

The figures for Greece tell an interesting story. A casual look suggests they got worse. But going beneath the surface, that was due to the costs of propping up the banks, a cost that isn't repeated year after year. Take that out of the picture and the figures look a good deal better.

If you also take out interest payments on government debt, then Greece has, so a European Commission spokesman says, reached an important milestone. It has achieved what's called a primary surplus in the government finances.

Critics say that the price of getting there, in terms of austerity and the wider economic damage it has done, is very high and unnecessarily so.

That debate will no doubt linger on and it applies more widely than just to Greece. All the countries that received bailouts have made some progress. They have all also suffered economically in the process.

While those nations have all reduced their annual borrowing needs, their burden of accumulated debt continued to rise.

In cash terms, the debts will rise as long as they have to continue new borrowing. But the burden is usually measured as a percentage of GDP. Strong economic growth could be enough to get that measure of the burden going down, even if they do still have deficits.

The eurozone has started to recover, including some of the bailed-out countries. Even Greece, where it all started, is forecast by the International Monetary Fund to see some, weak growth this year. But overall, Europe is not likely to grow strongly in the near future.

The Eurozone's financial repairs are far from complete. Unemployment is still painfully high in many countries. But these financial figures do show some signs of progress.

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