European companies grappling with the impact of Coronavirus could soon qualify for multi-million-euro loans backed by the European Union and big banks in a scheme poised to get waved through in days, according to people familiar with the matter.
The blueprint would see the release of hundreds of millions of euros of affordable loans for small companies, such as hotels, to tide them over while they recover from a trough in sales as the virus spreads, three people said.
This could form a central pillar of European governments' anxiously-awaited response to a crisis that has seen public life in Italy grind to a near halt, schools shut from Spain to Greece and sent financial markets into a spin.
It would complement other support measures expected to be announced by the European Central Bank on Thursday, to bolster the economy.
The plan, which is under discussion and has not been finalised, would revolve around the European Investment Bank (EIB), a powerful institution backed primarily by Germany, Italy and France as well as the other 24 EU members.
One option under consideration would see the EIB team up with some of Europe's biggest banks to jointly provide hundreds of millions of euros of affordable loans, the people said. Discussions with those banks are now under way.
To solve the risk of default rebounding on the EIB, which could tarnish its top-notch credit rating, the project could draw on the EU bloc's joint budget to cover potential losses if, say, a hotel taking the loan went bust, two of the people said.
The European Commission said "helping hard-hit businesses ... to provide short-term liquidity is a key part of the EU's economic policy response to the Coronavirus crisis".
A spokeswoman said it was working on options with the EIB that could be implemented immediately. The EIB declined to comment.
European Union finance ministers could consider whether to give the plan a thumbs up when they gather for meetings slated for Monday and Tuesday in Brussels, one of the people said.
This guarantee would make it easier for banks to lend. They would do the credit checking and give the loan, said two people, and could also bear some of the loss if the company who takes the credit cannot repay.
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, who has led calls for a coordinated European response to the crisis, put pressure on the EIB ahead of a meeting on Monday with its head Werner Hoyer saying it must "mobilise resources".
The scheme would be part of a wider plan to help the European economy recover from the impact of Coronavirus. The EU's executive Commission will this week review rules on borrowing and state subsidies, making it easier for Italy, the worst-affected country in Europe, to spend.
It has also said it wants to redirect billions of euros of EU funds, typically used for infrastructure, to coping with the crisis.
The lending-to-companies scheme echoes similar moves made by the EIB after the financial crash more than a decade ago.
It is modelled in part on an existing offering described by the bank as "intermediated loans" made available to companies both very small and large to finance investments in their business.