Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the head of the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, warned Friday against granting countries such as France too much budget flexibility, in media comments seen to criticize European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas pushed back, arguing that the application of EU budget guidelines is "rule-based and evidence-based and it takes into account the political and legal discretion which the rules themselves foresee."
France, which has long struggled with a sluggish economy and is in the midst of labour strikes over workplace reforms, has been given several reprieves despite failing to meet the European Union's debt and deficit rules.
Dijsselbloem warned the commission against turning a blind eye to budget sinners, as this could "make a blind monetary union," in an interview published Friday with The Guardian in Britain and six other European newspapers.
"If the commission is only strict with smaller countries and unable to be strict on larger countries, that would be devastating for the confidence we have in our cooperation," he added.
Juncker admitted on Tuesday that the commission had given France exemptions "because it's France," in an interview with the French parliament broadcaster Public Senat.
Such comments damage the credibility of the commission as guardian of the EU's rules, Dijsselbloem added, according to the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
But Schinas said that Juncker had been "very clear on many occasions that ... the commission makes no difference whatsoever between small and big member states."
Italy has also been granted flexibility to deviate from its 2016 deficit target in order to stimulate the economy and cover migration and anti-terrorism costs, while the commission postponed a verdict on Spain and Portugal's budgets until after elections in Madrid.
EU budget rules stipulate a deficit ceiling of 3 per cent of gross domestic product and a debt limit of 60 per cent of GDP.