Euro ministers back crisis credit, split on next steps

Agence France-Presse
A plan to allot 240 billion euros ($260 billion) for credit lines gets approval from eurozone ministers

ALL QUIET. A man rides his bike on the deserted commercial street via Dante in center Milan, Italy, during the country's lockdown. Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP

BRUSSELS, Belgium – Eurozone ministers on Friday, May 8, formally approved 240 billion euros ($260 billion) in credit lines to help European countries meet the crippling costs of fighting the coronavirus outbreak.

The plan will be run by the eurozone’s rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), and is a first big step for the European Union (EU)’s joint effort to lift an economy projected to contract by 7.7% this year.

The ESM handled the rescue of countries such as Greece from national bankruptcy during the financial crisis. Its aid programs are usually linked to tough conditions for budget belt-tightening, overseen by outside monitors.

But, under the agreement announced in a joint statement, the EU executive will waive the usual tight supervision as long as the spending remains linked to fighting the pandemic.

The agreement now has to be approved by some member states’ parliaments, including the Bundestag in Germany.

Under the deal, every country in the 19-member single currency union can take advantage of low-interest loans of up to 2% of its economic output. 

In the case of Italy and Spain, which were particularly hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, this would be 36 billion euros and 25 billion euros respectively.

The 27 ministers from the full EU have meanwhile been struggling to agree on a more long-term rescue fund that would relaunch the economy and spread public spending more fairly throughout the continent.

The issue has caused bitterness between the EU’s richer north and the more indebted south, with northerners led by the Netherlands accusing partners such as Italy or Spain of chronic overspending.

Eurogroup chief Mario Centeno insisted on Friday that an ambitious plan was crucial to ensure that economic recovery was felt equally across the continent.

“Not all countries have the same firepower, and we need to secure a level playing field,” said Centeno, who is also Portuguese finance minister.

France has submitted its own proposal for the fund that would involve joint borrowing by EU nations, but this will be firmly rejected by the so-called “frugal” northerners, including powerful Germany.

Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra insisted that the EU should take its time in coming up with a plan, and that finding out what was actually needed was the priority.

How the plan will be funded was  “secondary,” he told reporters after the talks. “The most important thing here is to have a thorough discussion on what is needed, and how to structure it.”

The European Commission – the EU’s Brussels-based executive – was originally slated to come up with a plan linked to the bloc’s budget on May 6, but this has been delayed for a few weeks at least. –