AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Eurogroup is considering the possibility of extending the maturity of bailout loans to Portugal and Ireland to help in their return to market funding, the chairman of euro zone finance ministers said, confirming a Reuters report.
"We are looking within the current programme and current loans to give more time," Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem told the Dutch parliament.
"It means a bit more time for repayment of the loans could be given. This is what we are looking at and this makes a transition to standing on their own legs a bit more gradual and less risky."
Sources familiar with the discussions said on Wednesday that euro zone governments favoured delaying the repayment of bailout loans by the two countries in their effort to return to the capital markets.
Ireland has received 67.5 billion euros ($88.5 billion) in its international bailout, while Portugal got 79.5 billion. Both countries were taken off financial markets and are undergoing tough structural reform programmes in return for the aid. Ireland's programme will expire this year, Portugal's next year.
A timely full return to financial markets would be a success for the euro zone, seeking to showcase that their bailouts have worked in a crisis that has sent unemployment rocketing in some countries and has led to an election standoff in Italy.
But Ireland and Portugal have asked euro zone finance ministers to help them stay off the programmes once they expire. Dublin also hopes Europe's new ESM rescue fund will take stakes in its almost fully state-owned banking sector off its hands next year once it is permitted to do so.
"For both countries we've seen they've made significant progress in the context of the aid programmes. On the other hand, in Portugal it has had very tough social consequences. We should not underestimate this," Dijsselbloem said.
"There is, however, really light at the end of the tunnel. These countries have had access to financial markets a few times, so we are working to the situation that they fund themselves again fully."