Ireland and Portugal are seeking more time to
repay bailout loans, European Union officials said Tuesday, just as
their international creditors are drafting measures that could help
the two revitalized countries resume borrowing on financial markets.
Eurozone finance ministers agreed to consider the extension on bailout maturities after Portugal's Vitor Gaspar pitched it to them on Monday night, Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said. The two countries have decided to pursue the relief jointly, he noted.
Noonan said the savings would be "significant," amounting to "a certain amount of billions."
EU officials will present a report on the issue in March, according to the Irish minister. EU Economy Commissioner Olli Rehn said the question could be taken up by EU finance ministers again that same month.
Gaspar expressed optimism that the debt relief would be granted.
"Lengthening maturities at low interest rates has the potential to enhance the sustainability of the Irish debt and, over a period of time, cost us less in servicing the debt," Noonan added Tuesday ahead of talks with his 26 EU counterparts in Brussels.
"This will make the overall debt position more sustainable and increase the willingness of the markets to loan to us at low interest rates," he said.
He rejected suggestions that financial markets could interpret the move as a sign that Dublin is struggling to repay the loans. Noonan pledged that Ireland will "pay everything down to the last euro."
Greece was offered a 15-year extension on the maturities of its loans in November, as part of a package to alleviate its debt woes.
Both Rehn and the outgoing president of the eurozone finance ministers' Eurogroup, Jean-Claude Juncker, are among those who support Portugal and Ireland also receiving relief.
Juncker argued on Monday night that they should be rewarded for their efforts to nurse their economies back into shape.
Both Ireland and Portugal are preparing to re-attempt long-term borrowing on the markets, after market jitters over the eurozone debt crisis pushed up their borrowing costs to unsustainable levels and forced them both to get money from bailout funds instead.
Their international lenders - the so-called troika of the European Commission, European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund - are drafting measures that could help smooth Dublin and Lisbon's return to the markets, Noonan and Rehn said.
The Irish minister did not rule out his country turning to the ECB's new government bond-buying programme for help in bolstering its market status, although Noonan said that such a move would only be possible after a successful market re-entry.
Rehn said a combination of the ECB scheme and of precautionary programmes offered by the eurozone's bailout fund is one of the measures being considered by the troika to bolster Ireland and Portugal.
"The (troika) note includes a menu of options," he noted. "It is in the very fundamental interest of not only the two countries, but the whole EU, that Ireland and Portugal will successfully return to market funding."
The ratings agency Standard & Poor's meanwhile said Tuesday it was maintaining Portugal's credit rating at junk level.
The outlook remains negative after Portugal's Constitutional Court cancelled some of the austerity measures adopted by Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho's government, the agency said.
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