By Stefan J. Bos
After days of tough negotiations, the 27-nation EU bloc reached a consensus on a 750 billion euro coronavirus fund. It will be sent as loans and grants to the countries hit hardest by the coronavirus. That comes on top of the roughly seven-year 1 trillion euro EU budget.
At first, the coronavirus grants were to total 500 billion euros. But the figure was lowered to 390 billion euros after pressure from the self-proclaimed frugal four - Sweden, Denmark, Austria, and the Netherlands.
Pandemic-suffering EU member states such as Spain and Italy initially declined to go below 400 billion euros.
Reaching an agreement wasn't easy. Amid the standoff, French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly banged his fists on the table, as he told the "frugal four" they were putting the European project "in danger." Germany also supported the proposed deal.
But lengthy negotiations later, summit chairman Charles Michel praised the results as a step forward for Europe. "I believe this agreement will be seen as a pivotal moment in Europe's journey, but it will also launch us into the future," he told reporters.
"In fact, it is the first time, the first time in European history that our budget will be clearly linked to our climate objectives. The first time, the first time that the respect for the rule of law is a decisive criterion for budget spending," Michel added. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was among the most vocal European leaders linking EU funding to the rule of law in member states such as Hungary and Poland. That sparked an angry response from Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Viktor Orbán.
"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," he told reporters. He spoke in front of the steps of a European history museum in a Brussels park, a short walk from the summit venue. "And making it very clear that because Hungary, in his opinion, does not respect the rule of law, [it] must be punished financially. That's his position, which is not acceptable because there is no decision about what is the rule of law situation in Hungary," Orbán stressed.
The package will now face more technical negotiations by member states and needs ratification by the European Parliament. Ursula von der Leyen is the president of the EU's executive European Commission. "This time member states have not opted for an inter-governmental agreement. But they have entrusted the European Commission, with Europe's recovery," she noted.
"We will together manage a total of EUR 1.8 trillion. The bulk of the money will be channeled through the programs in which the European Parliament is involved," the Commission president added.
The talks, which began in Brussels early Friday, saw more than 90 hours of tense negotiations. It was the EU's most extended summit since its meeting in 2000 in the French city of Nice, which lasted for five days.