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EU finance ministers discuss Irish debt crisis

By the CNN Wire Staff
Irish Finance minister Brian Lenihan arrives for the Eurozone finance ministers (ECOFIN) meeting.
Irish Finance minister Brian Lenihan arrives for the Eurozone finance ministers (ECOFIN) meeting.
  • Finance and economic ministers are meeting in Brussels
  • Ireland's financial sector is at risk of collapse because of massive debt
  • External support to bail out Ireland is one option being considered

(CNN) -- Ireland's economic problems were expected to dominate Wednesday's regular meeting of European Union economic and finance ministers in Brussels, Belgium.

Irish leaders have said their treasury is funded through the first half of 2011, but there are still fears its financial sector could collapse under the weight of its massive debt.

"We are now engaged in short-term and effective consultations with the Irish government, together with the European Central Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) in order to assess the real situation of the banking sector and the needs of reorganization and potential consequences of that," said Olli Rehn, the EU economic and monetary commissioner, as he arrived for Wednesday's meeting.

That Ireland shares the euro with 15 other European nations has raised concerns its financial problems could affect the common currency and the wider EU.

Is Ireland seeking EU help with finances?
Debt crisis undermining EU confidence

External support to bail out Ireland is one option being considered, but the country must make a request for that to happen -- and Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen said so far, he hasn't done so.

The European Union and IMF were forced to bail out Greece in May, coming up with a three-year, 110-billion-euro (currently $150 billion) loan to save Greece from defaulting on debt.

Belgian Finance Minister Didier Reynders said Wednesday the ministers were "ready to do something which is necessary" to help Ireland.

"We start the negotiation with Ireland, with the IMF, with the European Commission, with the ECB and, if necessary, we are ready to act," he said as he entered the meeting.

At the request of Irish authorities, a meeting was scheduled for Thursday with the IMF, ECB, and European Commission to determine the best way for them to provide support.

Britain is one of the most exposed European countries to the Irish financial problems, with "very strong interconnection in the banking sector and financial system between the two countries," Rehn said Wednesday.

It's in Britain's national interest that the Irish economy is successful.
--British finance minister
  • Ireland
  • European Union

Britain's finance minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, said Wednesday the the country will do what is in its own national interests as regards Ireland.

"Ireland is our closest neighbor, and it's in Britain's national interest that the Irish economy is successful and we have a stable banking system," he said in a statement. "So Britain stands ready to support Ireland in the steps that it needs to take to bring about that stability."

Cowen said he remains committed to reducing the country's deficit to below 3 percent of gross domestic product -- the broadest measure of a nation's economy -- by the end of 2014.

Ireland is forecast to run a deficit of 11.9 percent of its GDP in 2010, and overall, the country is grappling with a running tab of debt that will total 98.5 percent of its entire economy this year, Cowen said.

Since 2008, Ireland has enacted strict budget-cutting measures slashing about $20 billion off the country's budget. Cowen now plans to cut an additional $20 billion over the next few years.

"Our revenues and our spending are out of line to the tune of 19 billion (euros, or roughly $26 billion) and this is a gap that is presently being filled by borrowing," he said. "This cannot continue. We must continue along the road of budgetary consolidation which we first embarked upon in 2008."