Inconclusive video summit hashes over EU budget hurdle, vaccines

Charles Michel during the video teleconference summit on 19 November 2020. [Council Newsroom]

EU leaders said Thursday (19 November) they would intensify efforts to convince the Prime Ministers of Poland and Hungary to drop their veto of the EU coronavirus economic recovery plan, which has plunged the bloc into a new crisis threatening joint efforts to fight the epidemic.

The bloc’s 27 heads of state and government spent fewer than 15 minutes on the issue at the start of a video summit, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds the EU’s rotating presidency, responding to the rebels on their behalf.

“This is of course a very serious problem, which we have to solve,” Merkel told reporters after the meeting. “We want to work, we want to sound out all options that would be possible and we are still at the very beginning.”

Warsaw and Budapest, with the support of Slovenia, threw the EU into turmoil this week by using their veto to block the EU’s combined €1.8 trillion post-virus recovery plan and long-term budget.

Row over rule of law infects EU virus summit

Hungary and Poland’s opposition to Brussels’ oversight over the rule of law will be top of the EU summit agenda Thursday (19 November), sidelining efforts to tackle the coronavirus epidemic.

EU member states had planned to share the lessons learned in …

While not a complete surprise, the stand-off angered EU partners, with many keenly awaiting payouts from the stimulus to help fix economies shattered by the pandemic and worse feared to come.

EU Council President Charles Michel, who hosts European summits, had to answer a journalistic question if the Union failed betrayed or blackmailed by Poland, Hungary and Slovenia.

He replied that he wouldn’t say anything that would make the situation even more difficult. “We are working and will continue to work to find a solution”, he said.

An EU official said Michel made sure ahead of time that the conversation would remain short and “under control” to allow for later mediation.

“The three naysayers reiterated their reasons for their opposition, without any fresh or new nuance,” another senior EU source told reporters.

The nationalist governments are furious at their EU partners for backing a decision that ties the disbursement of bloc funds to respect for the rule of law and European values.

‘Men of trouble’

Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán are frequent scourges of Brussels, with anti-EU rhetoric rife in both their governments despite their countries being the biggest receivers of bloc spending.

“Hungary and Poland stated what they didn’t want, not what they did — true to their form as men of trouble, not of solutions,” said an irritated European diplomat.

The plan to tie EU funds to the rule of law, strongly defended by the European Parliament and most member states, has the votes to be approved by a qualified majority of members.

But Hungary and Poland are fighting back by using their veto against allowing the EU to raise funds to finance its €750 billion recovery plan and against the trillion-euro 2021-2027 budget, which require unanimity.

“Where does it stop?” Poland’s Morawiecki demanded of his EU counterparts, according to a source with knowledge of the proceedings.

“You are using this only against us and circumventing the treaty,” Morawiecki reportedly said. Before the summit he had slammed an alleged “European oligarchy” that was trying to bully weaker EU members.

The rule-of law issue is hugely sensitive for both countries. Poland is already under an EU investigative procedure over its efforts to trim the independence of the judiciary, as is Hungary for an erosion of democratic norms, such as press freedom, under Orbán’s rule.

In contrast, Bulgaria, a country criticized for democratic backsliding and deficit of media freedom, puts a brave face by accepting the rule of law conditionality. Prime Minister Boyko Borissov commented ahead of the summit that rule of law was “so important” that it had to be tied to the disbursement of EU funds.

‘On the table’

The rest of the bloc had hoped that the matter had been settled in July after a four-day and night summit hammered out an apparent budget compromise.

“Blocking the adoption of a decision on the recovery plan negatively affects the whole EU, including the citizens of Hungary and Poland,” Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban — no relation to Viktor Orbán — told AFP.

Germany, which holds the EU presidency until 31 December, will work furiously behind the scenes to defuse the row, and some diplomats think Orbán and Morawiecki could be persuaded quietly to accept guarantees of fair treatment.

“There was nothing to discuss at this political level, it’s too early. They want the discussions happening at a lower level,” said analyst Eric Maurice, of the Schuman foundation.

France and the Netherlands have invoked the possibility, seen as implausible by many, of by-passing the log-jam by pushing ahead with an intergovernmental recovery plan, without the holdouts.

“The magic of European Union is to succeed in finding solutions, even when you think it’s going to be impossible,” Michel said after the talks.

Avoiding a new Covid wave

Officially the main topic of the online summit was the handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The European Union must only lift coronavirus restrictions slowly and gradually to avoid another wave of infections, the head of the bloc’s executive said at the presser.

Ursula von der Leyen spoke after the 27 national leaders discussed stepping up joint testing efforts in the bloc, doling out vaccines and coordinating easing lockdowns as a second wave of the pandemic weighs on Europe.

“We have all learned from the experience in the summer that the exit from a wave … is very difficult and that … lifting measures too hastily has had a very bad impact on the epidemiological situation in summer and fall,” she said.

“Therefore, this time expectations have to be managed. We will make a proposal for a gradual and coordinated approach to lifting … containment measures. This will be very important to avoid the risk of yet another wave.”

Europe has had about 11.3 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 280,000 people have died, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. The pandemic has also thrust the EU into its deepest recession.

“We need to learn past lessons and be cautious when we lift restrictions. It should be gradual and progressive. We all want to celebrate the end of the year holidays, but safely. Let’s ring in the new year safely,” said Michel.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said the bloc needed a joint strategy for winter travel to avoid “a third ‘Christmas’ wave”.

Vaccines

Von der Leyen said her Commission was broadening its search of a vaccine through talks with Moderna and Novavax .

She said the European Medicines Agency could give “conditional marketing authorisation… as early as the second half of December if all proceeds now without any problem”.

Working together, US giant Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech have developed a vaccine the firms say has had successful clinical trials and have sent data to the EMA.

US biotech company Moderna has said its experimental vaccine is 95% effective.

The Amsterdam-based EMA will have to study test results before recommending that Brussels gives its approval, but — speaking after talks with EU leaders — von der Leyen was cautiously optimistic.

The European Union has contracts to reserve hundreds of millions of doses of future vaccines with BioNTech, Purevac, AstraZeneca and Sanofi if they can be brought to market.

“And we continue negotiations with Moderna, and we are in talks with Novavax,” von der Leyen said, adding that all 27 EU leaders had voiced support for the EU buying program.

She stressed that in the case of US firms, the EMA was in daily contact with its American equivalent the FDA.

Campaign needed

“And we are working on a vaccination campaign to support member states in the communication on the importance of vaccines. It is self-protection and it is solidarity,” she added.

Michel said the number of people sceptical of vaccination was growing in the EU and that the bloc would launch a campaign to convince them to change their minds. He said he hoped the bloc would get vaccines in 2021.

“Vaccination priorities are similar in most member states, first medical staff, then vulnerable persons,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told journalists after the virtual EU leaders’ gathering.

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