BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European governments will not need to abruptly end fiscal support for their economies after the pandemic, top officials said on Monday, noting that any withdrawal of stimulus would be carried out gradually and only once the economy has recovered.
Euro zone public debt rose sharply during 2020 and is likely to exceed 100% of GDP this year as governments borrow to help individuals and businesses survive lockdowns.
The higher debt raises concern about how to deal with it down the road and when to start cutting it again, since the EU last year suspended its rules limiting budget deficits and debt, known as the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP).
EU finance ministers are to discuss when to reintroduce any borrowing limits in the second quarter of this year.
"I believe it important that finance ministers debate and reach a common understanding on the appropriate fiscal stance by the summer. This can then serve as guidance for the preparation of their draft budgetary plans for 2022," the chairman of the euro zone's group of finance ministers, Paschal Donohoe, said on Monday.
"To avoid any misunderstanding, let me stress that this is not about an imminent withdrawal of fiscal stimulus," he told the economic committee of the European Parliament.
"We all agree that our immediate priority is to shield our citizens, in particular younger cohorts and those most exposed to the crisis. There must be no cliff-edges," he said.
Joao Leao, the finance minister of Portugal which holds the rotating presidency of the EU and therefore sets the agenda for EU finance ministers' work until June, was equally cautious.
"We should not withdraw stimulus too early. We need to make sure the suspension clause for the SGP remains in force at least until we return to pre-crisis economic figures," he told the committee. "We need to make sure jobs are maintained as well as the production capacity of companies."
He said first cash from the EU's 750 billion euro post-COVID economic recovery programme should reach the economy in the first half of the year.
"Real funding should be getting to the economy before the summer or in early part of the summer," he said.
(Reporting by Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Giles Elgood)