A marathon European Union summit has broken up temporarily in the fourth day of acrimonious haggling over an unprecedented 1.85 trillion-euro ($2.1 trillion) EU budget and coronavirus recovery fund to tackle the crisis. The weary leaders were scheduled to resume the meeting Monday afternoon.
The summit of the 27 EU leaders began Friday and was scheduled to end Saturday. Instead deep ideological differences between leaders forced the talks into Sunday and then through the night to Monday morning.
The bitter negotiations pitted a group of five wealthy northern countries – the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Finland – against southern nations hardest hit by the pandemic, supported by European heavyweights Germany and France.
Leaders did not comment as they left the summit venue early Monday.
On Sunday night, after three days of fruitless talks, EU Council president Charles Michel implored leaders to overcome their fundamental divisions and agree on the budget and recovery fund.
“Are the 27 EU leaders capable of building European unity and trust or, because of a deep rift, will we present ourselves as a weak Europe, undermined by distrust,” he asked the leaders at the end of another day of divisive negotiations. The text of the behind-closed-doors speech was obtained by The Associated Press.
“I wish that we succeed in getting a deal and that the European media can headline tomorrow that the EU succeeded in a Mission Impossible,” Michel said.
But early on the fourth day of talks – the summit was meant to last only two – the leaders still had not reached a compromise. As dawn broke Monday in Brussels, they were still in the marathon summit after haggling through the night over the size and terms of the recovery fund. After a brief plenary meeting, Michel pressed pause on the meeting.
Even with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron negotiating as the closest of partners, the traditionally powerful Franco-German alliance could not get the bloc’s 27 quarreling nations in line.
The pandemic has sent the EU into a tailspin, killing around 135,000 of its citizens and plunging its economy into an estimated contraction of 8.3% this year.
The bloc’s executive has proposed a 750 billion-euro coronavirus fund, partly based on common borrowing, to be sent as loans and grants to the countries hit hardest by the pandemic. That comes on top of the seven-year 1 trillion-euro EU budget that leaders have been haggling over for months even before the pandemic hit.
All nations agree they need to band together but the five richer countries in the north, led by the Netherlands, want strict controls on spending, while struggling southern nations like Spain and Italy say those conditions should be kept to a minimum.
At their dinner table Sunday night, the leaders could mull a proposal from the five wealthy northern nations that suggested a coronavirus recovery fund with 350 million euros of grants and the same amount again in loans. The five EU nations nicknamed “the frugals” – the Netherlands, Austria, Finland, Sweden and Denmark – had long opposed any grants at all.
Merkel and Macron walked out of heated talks before dawn Sunday with the frugals, bemoaning their lack of commitment to a common cause. “They ran off in a bad mood,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.
Rutte has long been known as a European bridge builder, but this weekend his tough negotiating stance is being blamed for holding up a deal. He and his allies are pushing for labor market and pension reforms to be linked to EU handouts and a “brake” enabling EU nations to monitor and, if necessary, halt projects that are being paid for by the recovery fund.
“He can’t ask us to do specific reforms,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said. “Once [the aid] is approved, each country will present its proposals.”
Rutte also wants a link to be made between the handout of EU funds and the rule of law – a connection aimed at Poland and Hungary, countries with right-wing populist governments that many in the EU think are sliding away from democratic rule.
That drew a harsh response from hardline Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
“I don't know what is the personal reason for the Dutch prime minister to hate me or Hungary, but he’s attacking so harshly and making very clear that because Hungary, in his opinion, does not respect the rule of law, [it] must be punished financially,” Orban said. [AP]