No deal in sight; European Union leaders haggle over budget and coronavirus fund - GulfToday

No deal in sight; European Union leaders haggle over budget and coronavirus fund


Angela Merkel speaks with Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boyko Borissov during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels. AP

European Union (EU) leaders hunted for compromises on Saturday on the second day of a summit to reach a deal on an unprecedented 1.85 trillion euro ($2.1 trillion) EU budget and coronavirus recovery fund, with tensions running high among leaders weary after months of battling the pandemic.

By the end of the afternoon, there was still no deal in sight, Austria's chancellor said.

A full day and night of discussions by the bloc's 27 leaders on Friday only added to the irritations over how the huge sums should be spent and what strings should be attached.

The EU executive has proposed a 750-billion euro fund, partly based on common borrowing, to be sent as loans and grants to the most needy countries. That comes on top of the seven-year 1-trillion-euro EU budget that leaders were fighting over when COVID-19 slammed their continent.

MerkelEUleadersElbowPresident Ursula von der Leyen (C) and Angela Merkel (R) bump elbows next to President David Sassoli in Brussels. AFP

The summit broke up around lunchtime on Saturday so each delegation could discuss the new proposals from host Charles Michel, according to a European diplomat.

The new proposals reduce the proportion of straight-out grants in the rescue package and raise the proportion of loans that will need to be paid back, in an apparent nod to a group of "frugal” nations led by the Netherlands, the diplomat said.

But the issue of how to track the rescue money remains the key sticking point, the diplomat said. Michel proposed a measure that would stop short of allowing any country a veto on how governments spend the money.

Another diplomat described Michel's new proposals as just the first step in what could be a long journey to agreement. Both diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to publicly discuss the closed-door negotiations.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Saturday afternoon that there was "movement in the right direction,” the Austria Press Agency reported, but he wants to see a higher budget rebate for Austria and a smaller proportion of grants in the 750 billion-euro recovery fund. He couldn’t say when an agreement would be in sight.

MerkelElbowbumpsPresident Charles Michel (R) greets Angela Merkel with an elbow bump during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels. AP

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has insisted member states retain final approval of EU funding — an effective veto — for national recovery plans for the likes of Spain and Italy, whose economies were ravaged by the virus and its lockdowns.

He says EU oversight is necessary to oblige countries to reform their labour markets to make them better able to cope with future crises.

In a concession to Rutte's demands, Michel's new plan includes a "super emergency brake" that gives any country a three-day window to trigger a review by all member states of another's spending plans.

An official from a non-frugal state insisted that this does not amount to a right of veto, but admitted that it remains to be seen whether countries such as Spain and Italy will accept the compromise.

Meanwhile, a European source said the frugal countries were still not happy with the broader package and were seeking more cuts.

"There are many more issues to solve but the proposal on governance as put forward by Michel is a serious step in the right direction," a Dutch diplomat said, but warned "many issues remain."

A Spanish source, however, expressed concern about the gesture to the Netherlands' concerns.

"Governance remains an obstacle," the Madrid delegation source said, referring to the emergency brake.

"It's positive that the size of the plan has been maintained, but we're studying the details."

Right of veto

Before talks with all 27 leaders restarted, Michel held a roundtable with Rutte, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and the Italian and Spanish PMs to test out his new proposal. After brief session with all 27 members, they broke off again for more consultations.

The leaders of some smaller countries — Belgium, Estonia, Luxembourg and Malta — left the venue to enjoy drinks and chips on a sunny square — while France, Germany, Italy and Spain faced off against the Frugals.

Michel's new proposal would keep the total recovery budget at 750 million euros, but shift the balance slightly from grants — down from 500 million to 450 million — to loans, which rise from 250 million to 300 million, according to a document seen by AFP.

While Rutte was alone in his hard line on the need for unanimous approval of grants, Austria also raised objections.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz wants the recovery fund to be smaller, tweeting late on Friday to reject the initial plan for 500 billion euros in grants and subsidies and insist countries reform their "broken systems."

'Zero grants'

But more problems lie ahead. A European diplomat told AFP if the member states agree on the volume of plan, "then I am quite optimistic."

But the diplomat warned that the frugals would not be content with reducing the amount of grants to 450 billion euros and would push for more to become loans, subject to repayment. "They wanted zero grants," he said.

MerkelEUleadersFrom (L) PM Sophie Wilmes, President Ursula von der Leyen, Angela Merkel and Sanna Marin pose prior to a round table meeting in Brussels. AP

What EU officials call the "Rule of Law" issue will also be a stumbling block. Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban could yet veto any attempt to tie budget funds to states upholding European legal standards.

And the rescue package is in addition to the planned seven-year EU budget -- worth more than one trillion euros -- that the leaders must also discuss even if and when they agree the rescue package.

Agence France-Presse

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