EU leaders show unity by agreeing ‘ambitious’ budget plan to deal with coronavirus recovery

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, center left, elbow bumps with European Council President Charles Mi

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, center left, elbow bumps with European Council President Charles Michel, center right, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, walks by during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels. (Stephanie Lecocq, Pool Photo via AP) - Credit: AP

Leaders of the European Union have finally agreed a budget to deal with the coronavirus recovery after four days and nights of wrangling over money and power in one of the longest ever summits.

An unprecedented 1.82 trillion euro (£1.64 trillion) budget has been agreed with a 750 billion euro (£677 billion) coronavirus fund to be sent as loans and grants to the countries hit hardest by the virus.

That comes on top of the seven-year one trillion euro (£900 billion) EU budget. At first the grants were to total 500 billion euro (£451 billion), but the figure was lowered to 390 billion euro (£352 billion).

German chancellor Angela Merkel said: 'Extraordinary events, and this is the pandemic that has reached us all, also require extraordinary new methods.'

Belgian prime minister Sophie Wilmes said: 'Never before did the EU invest in the future like this.'

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'It is a historic day for Europe,' added French president Emmanuel Macron, who earlier reflected on some 'extremely tense moments' during the marathon summit.

Just shy of being the longest EU summit in history, the 27 leaders huddled back in the main room of the Europa centre and bumped elbows and made jokes before giving the package the final approval.

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'Deal!' wrote summit host Charles Michel on Twitter.

What was planned as a two-day summit scheduled to end on Saturday was forced into two extra days by deep ideological differences among the leaders.

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez insisted the adoption of an ambitious plan was required as the health crisis continued to threaten the continent.

With Macron and Merkel negotiating as the closest of partners, the traditionally powerful Franco-German alliance could not get the quarrelling nations in line for long.

'The consequences will be historic,' Macron said.

'We have created a possibility of taking up loans together, of setting up a recovery fund in the spirit of solidarity.'

He said this sense of sharing debt that would have been unthinkable not so long ago.

The French leader added: 'When Germany and France stand together, they can't do everything. But if they don't stand together, nothing is possible.'

And he challenged anyone in the world who had criticised the days of infighting to think of a comparable joint endeavour.

'There are 27 of us around the table and we managed to come up with a joint budget. What other political space in the world is capable of that? None other,' Mr Macron said.

Merkel said: 'We have laid the financial foundations for the EU for the next seven years and came up with a response to this, arguably biggest crisis of the European Union.'

The leaders mulled a proposal from the five wealthy northern nations - the Netherlands, Austria, Finland, Sweden and Denmark - that suggested a coronavirus recovery fund with 350 billion euro of grants and the same amount in loans. The five nations, nicknamed 'the frugals', had long opposed any grants at all, while the EU executive had proposed 500 billion euro.

The latest compromise proposal stands at 390 billion euros in grants.

'There is no such thing as perfection, but we have managed to make progress,' Macron said.

All nations agree in principle they need to band together but the five richer countries in the north want strict controls on spending. Struggling southern nations like Spain and Italy say those conditions should be kept to a minimum.

The five have been pushing for labour market and pension reforms to be linked to EU handouts, and for a 'brake' enabling EU nations to monitor and, if necessary, halt projects that are being paid for by the recovery fund.

'We all can take a hit,' Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said. 'After all, there are presidents among us.'

Despite bruising confrontations with Merkel, Macron and his Italian counterpart, Giuseppe Conte, Rutte maintained that 'we have very good, warm relations'.

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