By JUERGEN BAETZ and RAF CASERT
BRUSSELS (AP) - The European Union softened its demands for austerity Wednesday when it gave France, Spain and four other member states more time to bring their deficit levels under control so that they can support their ailing economies.
The EU Commission, the 27-nation bloc's executive arm, said the countries must instead overhaul their labor markets and implement fundamental reforms to make their economies more competitive.
Issuing a series of country-specific policy recommendations in Brussels, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said that the pace of reform needed to be stepped up across the EU to kick-start growth and fight record unemployment.
"We need to reform, and reform now. The cost of inaction will be very high," Barroso said. "There is no room for complacency."
After Europe's crisis over too much debt broke in late 2009, the region's governments slashed spending and raised taxes as a way of controlling their deficits - the level of government debt as a proportion of the country's economic output.
But austerity has also inflicted severe economic pain.
Slashing spending and raising taxes have proved to be less effective at reducing deficits than initially thought. As economies shrink, so do their tax revenues, making it harder to close those budget gaps.
Besides France and Spain, the Commission is also granting the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Slovenia more time to bring their deficits below the EU ceiling of 3 percent of annual economic output. That means they will be allowed to stretch out spending cuts over a longer time as they try to fight record unemployment and recession.
The Netherlands and Portugal are now granted one additional year, whereas France, Spain, Poland and Slovenia are granted two additional years each.
Some critics, however, insisted the Commission's softening of austerity wasn't enough to kick-start growth and fight unemployment.
"Today's report amounts to a confession of grave mistakes," said Hannes Swoboda, leader of the European Parliament's center-left caucus. "The European Commission is at last facing reality but is still refusing to draw the logical conclusions and change its course," he added, calling for the budget trimming to be stretched out over 10 to 15 years instead.
Europe is stuck in a recession that has led to an increasingly bitter debate over the merits of austerity as a way to solve the region's economic problems.
With rising unemployment, there is a growing consensus that governments must shift their policies toward fostering growth to end the downward economic spiral, even in countries like Germany that have long insisted vehemently on rigorous fiscal policies.
The new measures, however, do not mean that Europe has abandoned its message of austerity and strict budgetary discipline altogether. Moreover, bailed-out Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus still have harsh deficit targets they have to meet to continue getting bailout loans.
Barroso rejected suggestions that the Commission bowed to political pressure and switched focus away from austerity.
Singling out France, the 17-nation eurozone's second-largest economy, as an example of how the EU is still keeping an eye on its members' economies, Barroso said that "this extra time should be used wisely to address France's failing competitiveness," he added.
In its recommendations, the Commission urged France to cut red tape, implement pension and labor market reforms, and strengthen competition in the services and energy sectors.
"French companies' market shares have experienced worrying erosion in the last decade - in fact beyond the last decade, we can say the last 20 years," Barroso stressed.
Spain, the eurozone's fourth-largest economy, with an unemployment rate of 27 percent, now has until 2016 to bring its deficit under control. It is set to drop from 6.5 percent of GDP this year to 2.8 percent then.
To achieve this, the Commission says Madrid must scrutinize spending programs, push ahead with labor market reform, revise the tax system, reduce costs in the health sector and complete pending bank recapitalizations.
The Commission's recommendations will become legally binding and shape the countries' fiscal policies once approved by the EU's leaders, who will discuss them at their summit next month.
Some countries were also dropped off the Commission's list of nations whose budgets are under increased surveillance because of an excessive deficit. They include Italy, Latvia, Hungary, Lithuania and Romania.
The most important of these decisions was on Italy, the eurozone's third-largest economy, where the Commission expects this year's deficit to come in at 2.9 percent and then 1.8 percent in 2014. However, the experts in Brussels gave the new government in Rome a long list of measures to take, including labor market reforms and an overhaul of the tax system.
The EU's top economic official, Olli Rehn, insisted Italy still had little leeway to go on a spending binge or lower taxes. "Italy has a very low safety margin to keep the budget under the limit," he said.
Governments across the 17-nation eurozone last year slashed their budget deficits by about 1.5 percent of their combined annual GDP in structural terms, which takes into account the sluggish economy. That pace is set to be halved in 2013, the Commission said in its spring forecast earlier this month.
Since the debt crisis erupted, EU nations have agreed to give the bloc's executive arm more powers in scrutinizing national budgets, complete with the ability to punish or issue binding policy recommendations for countries running excessive deficits.
In practice, the Commission wields considerable power in its dealings with smaller member states, but big nations like France are hard to bring into line.
Even with smaller countries, imposing fines in economically tough times has proven difficult. This was the case with Belgium, host to most EU institutions, which Wednesday was lucky to escape punishment after missing its 2010 and 2011 deficit targets - a period when the country was without a government for 541 days.
"It went into injury time but Belgium used it effectively and scored during this injury time," said Rehn. "It would neither be fair nor legally sound to apply it retroactively to those years."
A leading international body warned Wednesday that the recession in Europe risks hurting the world's economic recovery as whole. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said the eurozone's economy is now expected to shrink by 0.6 percent this year, against a predicted drop of 0.1 percent in its latest outlook six months ago.
The EU Commission this month forecast the eurozone's economy would shrink by 0.4 this year. It estimated the wider EU - which includes the ten nations such as Britain that don't use the euro currency - would suffer a 0.1 percent contraction.
Baetz reported from Berlin. Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.
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