BRUSSELS – European Union leaders headed into Saturday, the scheduled final day of their summit, about as far apart from reaching a deal on an unprecedented 1.85 trillion euro ($2.1 trillion) EU budget and coronavirus recovery fund as the seating distance imposed upon them for health reasons.
The prescient words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel that “the differences are still very, very big” were borne out during marathon talks since early Friday, and not even a partial breakthrough was on the horizon as negotiators headed into the weekend.
After two full sessions, summit host and European Council President Charles Michel worked with individual nations to narrow down their sizable differences over who should give and get the money and under what conditions.
On a terrace at the top of the summit center overlooking the Belgian capital late Friday, Michel had talks with Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban — many of the opposing forces that could turn the summit into a failure by Saturday night. After a long dinner, the talks broke up just before midnight.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said that on several key issues, “I don't have the impression that we are getting close to an agreement."
Macron underscored the importance of the challenge. “It is our project Europe that is at stake.”
The challenges facing the 27 EU leaders are formidable. The bloc is suffering 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 quickly changed to hard business and what is slated as a two-day meeting could go even longer, if necessary, to bridge the differences between leaders.