Italy knows what that means. Before the onset of the last decade's financial crisis, and the German-imposed fiscal austerity, Italy's budget deficit in 2007 was whittled down to 1.5 percent of GDP (compared to nearly 3 percent of GDP in France), the primary budget surplus (budget before interest charges on public debt) was driven up to 1.7 percent of GDP, helping to bring down the public debt to 112 percent of GDP from an annual average of 117 percent in the previous six years.
But then all hell broke loose once the Germans — defiantly rejecting Washington's call to reason — set out to teach a lesson to "fiscal miscreants" by imposing austerity policies on the euro area's sinking economies.
Italy should never allow that to happen again.
What, then, should Italy do? The answer is simple: Exactly what it says it wants to do in the 2019 budget passed last Thursday by an overwhelming majority in the Senate (61 percent of the votes) and in the Parliament's Lower House (63.4 percent of the votes).
Italy is comfortably within the euro area budget rule. Its projected budget deficit of 2.4 percent of GDP for the next fiscal year is below the 3 percent deficit limit in the monetary union.
So, why all the fuss? Why is it that nobody seems to be objecting to the fact that France and Spain will have larger deficits than Italy?
France has recently raised its next year's deficit estimate to 2.8 percent of GDP from an earlier commitment of 2.6 percent. And that's not the end of the story. Downward growth revisions are still going on, there is no political consensus on what spending to cut, and an increasingly weak and unpopular government may even fail to keep the budget deficit below 3 percent of GDP.
Spain's unstable minority government is struggling with the same problem. The economy is slowing, and Madrid has a long history of overshooting its budget deficit forecasts. This year's deficit, for example, is now expected to hit 2.7 percent of GDP from an earlier official forecast of 2.2 percent. As things now stand, it will be an epic struggle to keep Spain's budget deficit under the 3 percent of GDP limit.
Why is all that being met by a deafening silence from Brussels? Could it be that the EU's leniency toward France and Spain has a lot to do with their lower public debt?
It's possible, but, if that's true, it's a big mistake. Those countries have a lower debt on a worsening budget trend. France's debt accounts for 122 percent of GDP. The French primary budget deficit means that the debt will continue to climb. Spain's public debt is 115 percent of GDP, with virtually no primary budget surpluses to speak of. And both countries are on the way to growing public sector liabilities as a result of widening budget deficits.
No wonder some people are asking: Is the EU's attack on Italy's fiscal policy part of a different agenda? I'll give you a hint below, but that's a story for another day.