RETRANSMISSION TO ADD CONTEXT INFORMATION - Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, right, puts his hands on the neck of Spain's Economy Minister Luis de Guindos, center, as Dutch Finance Minister Jan Kees De Jager, left, looks on during a meeting of eurozone finance ministers at the EU Council building in Brussels on Monday, March 12, 2012. As ministers chatted with each other at the meeting, the eurogroup's chief, Jean-Claude Juncker, came up behind Spanish finance minister, Luis De Guindos, and jokingly grabbed him by the neck with both hands, but the gesture soon appeared to change into a laughing friendly greeting and then deep discussion. The 17 euro countries are trying to focus on issues beyond the Greek crisis and deal with longer-term issues in their currency union, like discussing Spain's high deficits and potentially dangerous imbalances in some countries. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
BRUSSELS (AP) — Eurozone finance ministers on Monday gave unemployment-ridden Spain some more wiggle room in cutting its big deficit, signaling that new, tighter rules against overspending in the currency union retain some flexibility for hard-hit countries.
The ministers from the 16 other states that use the euro said Spain had to make further cuts worth 0.5 percent of gross domestic product, which indicates that the country is now expected to slash its government deficit to around 5.3 percent of GDP this year from about 8.5 percent last year.
That is still below the 5.8 percent deficit target Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced earlier this month, but significantly softer than the 4.4 percent deficit the country had originally promised to its partners in the euro.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg who also chairs the meetings of eurozone finance ministers, said it was "of the utmost importance" that Spain brings its deficit down to below 3 percent of GDP — and back in line with European Union rules — by 2013.
Many economists have warned that cutting spending too quickly could do more harm than good in a country like Spain. Spain's debt level is below the eurozone average, but unemployment is running at a record high and a shaky housing market risks piling huge losses on an already weak banking system.
However, ahead of the meeting, several ministers had worried that easing the pressure on Madrid risked undermining almost two years of work by the currency union's leaders to tighten rules against overspending. The currency union has chosen tough austerity as its main tool in fighting off a worsening debt crisis, hoping that it will convince investors to lend to struggling countries like Italy and Spain.
But Olli Rehn, the EU's economic affairs commissioner who is in charge of policing the bloc's debt and deficit limits, said giving Spain a bit more leeway this year did not violate the new rules.
"The Stability and Growth Pact is not stupid," Rehn said.
He said that this year's target had to be eased because Spain's 2011 deficit had come in so much higher than expected — at 8.5 percent of GDP instead of 6 percent — and because the country is falling deeper into recession.
The important thing, he said, was that the 2013 goal will be met and that Spain gets its public finances back on a sustainable path.
But Sony Kapoor, the managing director of the economic think tank Re-Define, said that even the softer target could damage Spain's weak economy and push up unemployment even beyond the current 23 percent.
"It's too hard an adjustment in too short a time, when the Spanish real-estate market is too weak and unemployment is too high and rising," Kapoor said. He added that a boost from exports was also unlikely amid low growth or recession in most other euro countries.
The stricter budget rules are also causing some problems in countries that have always presented themselves as fiscal hard-liners. The Netherlands, which has spent much time lecturing Greece and other struggling states about the importance of deficit cutting, also risks overrunning its budget targets this year.
Dutch Finance Minister Jan Kees de Jager stressed Monday that while his country would take the "appropriate measures," it was unfair to group it together with some of the other overspenders.
"You cannot of course compare us to other countries, because when you see the confidence on the financial markets, confidence is very high," he told reporters before the meeting.
Associated Press writer Don Melvin contributed to this story.