EU holds masked budget summit in pandemic times

BRUSSELS (AP) – European Union (EU) leaders acknowledged yesterday they are about as far apart from reaching a deal on an unprecedented EUR1.85 trillion (USD2.1 trillion) EU budget and virus recovery fund as the seating distance imposed upon them for health reasons at their summit.

“The differences are still very, very big and so I can’t predict whether we will achieve a result this time,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she arrived at the Europa summit site. “So I expect very, very difficult negotiations.”

The challenges facing the 27 EU leaders – some of whom arrived masked, some unmasked – are formidable. The bloc is suffering through the worst recession in its history and member states are fighting over who should pay the most to help other countries and which nations should get the most to turn around their battered economies.

As the summit got underway all leaders were wearing masks. The usual hugs, handshakes and kisses were replaced by friendly nods and elbow bumps. The jovial atmosphere was not expected to last long at what will likely be one of the most brutal and bruising summits of recent times. What is slated as a two-day meeting could go even longer, if necessary, to bridge the differences between leaders.

After addressing the leaders, European Parliament President David Sassoli said the stakes could not be higher and urged leaders to reach agreement as Europe is buffeted by the economic headwinds of the coronavirus crisis.

A meeting room especially adapted to adhere to physical distance guidelines for EU leaders for an upcoming EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels. PHOTO: AP

“Any postponement could trigger new storms and imperil the European scene. We know that forecasts are very negative,” he said. “If Europe does not decide, maybe a financial storm front could hit public finances and, therefore, it’s very important that there should be a decision, an agreement.”

French President Emmanuel Macron led the early negotiations, arriving on Thursday and using the the pre-summit hours to meet with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a stringent budget hardliner and considered one of the biggest obstacles to reaching a deal at the two-day meeting.

“I am not optimistic, but you never know. Nobody wants another meeting,” said Rutte.