EU ministers strike compromise on Macron-backed eurozone budget

Luxembourg (AFP) –


EU finance ministers agreed on the broad outlines of a eurozone budget early Friday, a key reform pushed by Paris that was scaled back amid deep resistance from the Netherlands.

French President Emmanuel Macron had championed the hard won budget, seen by many as one of the missing links in the single currency almost a decade after the debt crisis.

But his original ambition has been toned down by opponents led by the Netherlands who fear a transfer of wealth to crisis-prone countries such as Italy, Greece or Spain.

"We did tonight what we had set out to do: we've created a genuine eurozone budget," Bruno Le Maire said after more than 12 hours of talks.

"For the first time, we have created an operational budget that will help eurozone countries to converge and become more competitive. It's a breakthrough," the French finance minister told AFP.

"For the first time, we will start thinking about the future as a coherent bloc and coordinating our economic policies," he added.

The spokesman for the President of the Eurogroup Mario Centeno in a tweet welcomed the deal, adding the details would be announced at a press conference later on Friday.

The ministers' agreement is officially not called a budget -- which would be too politically sensitive in richer countries -- but something called the Budgetary Instrument for Competitiveness and Convergence or BICC, a fund with limited firepower to be used to back reforms.

The cumbersome jargon came at the demand of the Dutch, who have accepted the instrument only on condition that it remains a modest affair.

"Long and fruitful discussions in Luxembourg Eurogroup," wrote Dutch finance minister Wopke Hoekstra on twitter, hailing "excellent" breakthroughs in other areas, such as reforming the bloc's crisis war chest, the European Stability Mechanism.

On the eurozone budget he added only: "Discussion on the finance of the BICC will continue at a later stage."

- Fear of less money -

All sides agreed the final amount will be much lower than the initial hopes of the French president, who had envisaged several hundred billion euros.

Two European sources mentioned a budget of 17 billion euros spread over seven years between the 19 countries that use the single currency and that would be tied to the overall EU budget.

Debate is also still open over whether the money should only come from the EU budget or whether it can also be increased by national contributions from member states.

The latter option is rejected by several countries that fear that less money will then flow into the overall EU budget.

The compromise by ministers will be presented for formal approval to EU leaders at a summit next week in Brussels.