BRUSSELS — European Union nations agreed to give €67.5 billion ($89.4 billion) in bailout loans to Ireland on Sunday to help the debt-struck country weather its banking crisis, and sketched out new rules for future emergencies in an effort to restore faith in the euro currency.
The rescue deal, approved by finance ministers at an emergency meeting in Brussels, means two of the eurozone's 16 nations have now come to depend on foreign help and underscores Europe's struggle to contain its spreading debt crisis. The fear is that with Greece and now Ireland shored up, speculative traders will target the bloc's other weak fiscal links, particularly Portugal.
In Dublin, Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen said his country will take €10 billion immediately to boost the capital reserves of its state-backed banks, whose massive bad loans were picked up by the Irish government but have become too much to handle. Another €25 billion will remain in reserve, earmarked for the banks.
The rest of the loans will be used to cover Ireland's deficits for the coming four years. EU chiefs also gave Ireland an extra year, until 2015, to reduce its annual deficits to 3 percent of GDP, the eurozone limit. The deficit now stands at a modern European record of 32 percent because of the runaway costs of its bank-bailout program.
Cowen said the accord — reached after two weeks of tense negotiations in Brussels and Dublin to fathom the true depth of the country's cash crisis — "provides Ireland with vital time and space to successfully and conclusively address the unprecedented problems that we've been dealing with since this global economic crisis began."
However, in a surprise accounting move, European and IMF experts decided that Ireland first must run down its own cash stockpile and deploy its previously off-limits pension reserves in the bailout. Until now Irish and EU law had made it illegal for Ireland to use its pension fund to cover current expenditures. This move means Ireland will contribute €17.5 billion to its own salvation.
Cowen said interest rates on the loans, with terms ranging from three years to 7 1/2 years, would average 5.83 percent — higher than the 5.2 percent being paid by Greece for its own May bailout.
But the embattled prime minister told a nighttime press conference that Ireland had no choice, because international investors had decided that lending to Ireland was too risky and were demanding unreasonable returns. The yield on 10-year Irish bonds rose Friday to a euro-era high of 9.2 percent.
When asked if Ireland could afford the repayments on its new EU-IMF debts, Cowen said Ireland couldn't afford not to take this aid.
"If we didn't have this program, we would have to go back to the markets, which as you know are at prohibitive rates," Cowen said. "We would pay far more."
As part of the deal, Ireland has been absolved from making further payments into the €110 billion bailout of Greece. That move saves Ireland approximately €1 billion.
The three groups offering funds to Ireland — the 16-nation eurozone, the full 27-nation EU, and the global donors of the International Monetary Fund — each have committed €22.5 billion ($29.8 billion). Extra bilateral loans from Sweden, Denmark and Britain are included within the EU contribution totals.
To shore up longer-term confidence in the euro, EU finance ministers also agreed on a permanent mechanism that from 2013 would allow a country to restructure its debts once it has been deemed insolvent.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the Eurogroup, which includes the 16 euro nations, said private creditors would be forced to take losses only if ministers agreed unanimously that the country had run out of money.
He said that if a country is merely facing a crisis of liquidity, it would get financial help similar to the bailout agreed for Ireland.
European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet said making senior bondholders — chiefly banks that loan to other banks — suffer losses when a nation's finances head towards bankruptcy would be "fully consistent" with existing IMF policies.
Analysts and opposition leaders in Ireland warned that the country of 4.5 million was taking on a bill it couldn't afford to repay at rates exceeding 5 percent.
Michael Noonan, finance spokesman of the main opposition Fine Gael party, said he believed that fellow EU members — particularly Germany, the eurozone's bankroller — didn't want to give money too cheaply to Ireland, for fear that Dublin would grow addicted to it.Comment on this story
Noonan said the loans were "pitched high to drive us back into the market," and would encourage Ireland to pursue maximum austerity measures in hopes of reassuring the bond markets.
Ireland in recent days committed to slashing €10 billion from spending and raising €5 billion in new taxes over the coming four years, with the harshest steps coming in the 2011 budget to be unveiled Dec. 7.
Cowen has only a two-vote majority in parliament. Last week he pledged to dissolve parliament for early elections next year — but only after the budget is fully enacted. Opposition leaders won't say if they will support the budget, leaving Cowen vulnerable to losing a key budget-related vote within the next two months.
Pogatchnik contributed from Dublin. David Stringer in Dublin also contributed.