by Neil Madden
STRASBOURG, June 18 (Xinhua) -- Italian Prime Minister (PM) Matteo Renzi met European Council President Herman Van Rompuy on Wednesday ahead of the Council's summit meeting next week.
The summit is expected to confirm the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker, the candidate of the center-right European Peoples' Party (EPP), as the next EC President.
The former Luxembourg prime minister then needs to win an absolute majority in the European Parliament (EP) in a vote scheduled for July 16. That would mean securing the votes of at least 376 members (MEPs) in the 751-seat parliament.
The Italian prime minister, whose country takes over the EU presidency on 1 July, wants greater flexibility in budget rules as a condition of his agreement on the EC presidency.
Sandro Gozi, Italy's undersecretary for European Affairs, was quoted in the Financial Times as saying: "We're not getting hung up on any particular name, we want commitments on political priorities. We want whoever becomes President of the EC, including Juncker, to commit to political priorities of jobs, growth, energy and fundamental rights."
The EU's Stability & Growth Pact (SGP) sets a limit on budget deficits of 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and a debt ceiling of 60 percent of GDP. Yet, despite five years of austerity programs most EU countries have barely managed to stay within the 3 percent deficit limit, and average debt ratios have ballooned to over 90 percent.
Italy's deficit has successfully been controlled and has been at 3 percent for the past two years. Disciplinary measures against the government in Rome have now been suspended, but just two weeks ago the EC urged the eurozone's third-largest economy to rein in its public debt, which stood at 132.6 percent of GDP at the end of the 2013.
If Renzi gets a deal and supports Juncker's nomination, British Prime Minister David Cameron would find it nearly impossible to form a majority to block the Luxembourger's name being put to the EP. The last thing Renzi wants is to have Italy's presidency begin with a drawn out fight over the EC's top job.
The EP's center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group has also made clear its terms for supporting Juncker's nomination.
Ahead of stepping down as the group's president, Hannes Swoboda told journalists on Monday that the S&D now wants to see Juncker backing Renzi's call for greater budget flexibility.
Getting the support of the S&D will be vital for Juncker. The EPP has 221 MEPs, and while the party can probably count on support from most of the Liberal ALDE group (59 MEPs), it is the 191 S&D seats that would guarantee a vote in his favor.
"We don't demand a change to the SGP just to its implementation," said Swoboda. He did not accept that any budgetary relaxation would give a free hand to governments to carry on spending regardless of their economic situation. Rather, the S&D wants to "focus on how certain productive investments can be exempted from the budget figures".
Effectively this means public works projects, like infrastructure spending, being exempted from deficit and debt ratios.
It is a central argument of the S&D that years of austerity have not delivered the economic growth and job creation promised at the start of the eurozone crisis. Swoboda added that European voters had voted "against austerity and for reform and growth."
Succeeding Swoboda as S&D is the German Martin Schulz. Speaking Wednesday of his appointment, Schulz also called on the European Council to give Juncker a mandate for EC President.
"We must not delay a process which the people of Europe have voted on. Jean-Claude Juncker should be given a mandate to find a majority in the European Parliament, with a clear commitment from all democratic groups.
"However, our group will only support a Commission President who is ready to take on the big challenges in the EU: ending austerity, tackling unemployment - especially among the young - curbing the rise in poverty and social exclusion, beating the tax cheats and making Europe competitive with more investment, modernized infrastructure and a more flexible interpretation of the SGP."
On Tuesday Philippe Lamberts, the new co-chairman of the Greens group, said it was unlikely that the Greens would vote in favour of Juncker, unless the EPP candidate put forward "a different policy to the one (i.e. austerity) of the past five years."