By Stefan J. Bos
However, the European Union delegates appeared weary and even bleary as they began their fourth day of fighting over an unprecedented 1.85 trillion-euro ($2.1 trillion) EU budget.
It includes a roughly 750 billion euro ($860 billion) coronavirus recovery fund. They started the talks following a weekend of walkouts and even fists slams on the expensive tables used for these negotiations.
Among the most agitated leaders was French President Emmanuel Macron, who reportedly banged his hand on the table and threatened to walk out of the discussions. And Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has admitted leaders were "close to failure," and talks could still "fall apart."
But discussions were due to resume later on Monday for what is now the most extended EU summit since Nice 2000 when talks lasted five days.
President of the European Council Charles Michel reminded the leaders that more than 600,000 people had died of the virus worldwide. He stressed he hoped that the "headline tomorrow is that the EU has accomplished mission impossible."
But with a brilliant sun warming the negotiating sundeck at the Europa summit center early Monday, reporters noted a glimmer of hope.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the target of much of the criticism, suggested that talks to help the continent emerge from the pandemic through an unprecedented economic aid package are not doomed after all. "It didn't always look good during the night. But in, the end we made progress," Rutte told Dutch media.
However, he suggested that the informal 'frugal four' group of the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, and Sweden, "want a fund that reflects their concerns over the way money is spent."
He spoke after the Netherlands, and the other wealthy northern nations supporting his views suggested a coronavirus recovery fund with 350 billion euros of grants. And the same amount again in loans.
They had long opposed any grants at all, while the EU executive had proposed 500 billion euros.
Tensions over the coronavirus weren't the only hurdle facing EU leaders. The Dutch prime minister also demanded linking respect for the rule of law to granting billions in EU funds to countries such as Hungary and Poland.
Governments of both nations have come under mounting EU criticism over allegedly trampling on the independence of the judiciary, media, and other institutions.
However, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán condemned his Dutch counterpart Rutte for wanting to link the aid to the rule of law in member states. "I don't know what is the personal reason for the Dutch prime minister to hate me or Hungary. But he is 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," Orbán complained.
"That's his position, which is not acceptable because there is no decision about what is the rule of law situation in Hungary," he added.
But the Netherlands and allies want this to be part of broader reforms in EU member states. They also push for the labor market and pension reforms to be linked to EU handouts.
And they want EU nations to monitor and, if necessary, halt projects being paid for by the coronavirus recovery fund.