EU survives COVID talks but not unscathed
Tense recovery talks have revealed deep political fractures in the European Union, questioning its ability to stay unified.
Megan Revell reports.
[European Commission President, Ursula Von der Leyen, saying:] "We are at the beginning of the summit now and the stakes couldn't be higher.” There’s been a lot riding on the latest round of marathon EU budget talks.
For many leaders, it was about more than just the money - the bloc’s survival was also once again in play.
[Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, saying:] "What is at stake are the principles of European unity and European solidarity." A deal might have been reached, but five days of tortured negotiations exposed deep fault lines.
European Council President Charles Michel called it "mission impossible." "... it's not only about money, it's about people, about European future, about our unity.” The wrangling over finances point to cracks in the EU's foundations, with old grievances bubbling to the surface.
There’s the debt-ridden south - comprising countries like Italy and Greece, which were hit hard by the virus and/or its economic impact.
[Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, saying:] "...these compromises cannot be such so as to water down the level of our ambition regarding a bold European response to the coronavirus crisis and the economic fallout it has caused." They’re pitted against the thriftier, wealthier north.
They’ve been pushing for less spending.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte even took a biography of the composer Fryderyk Chopin to the talks - reading material for him to pass the time, for what he saw as a pointless process.
The leaders of the frugal five reflect significant feelings back home.
Domestic voters are unhappy with their status as the bloc's biggest net contributors.
Put simply: their countries contribute more to the EU’s budget than they get back.
Each member pays a proportion of its national income - so richer nations pay more, poorer ones pay less.
Even before the pandemic, the joint coffers were already short thanks to Brexit.
The UK had been a big contributor to the overall budget before its departure from the bloc.
Agreeing on budgets has always been an arcane process, whether it’s over agriculture or regional development.
It’s like a giant game of chess, where concessions in one area are traded against benefits in another.
So alongside spending less, the frugal five also demanded that strings be attached to any funding, conditions designed to uphold that key European value: democracy.
But the conditions do not go down well with another faction - the eastern, eurosceptic and nationalist nations of Hungary and Poland, who are resisting any conditions on the rule of law.
[Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, saying:] "I don't know what is the personal reason for the Dutch prime minister to hate me." The pandemic is the latest in a long line of big challenges for the EU.
The debt crisis a decade ago was followed by feuds over mass immigration, the Brexit trauma, and growing euroskepticism in countries like Italy.
For some, this is a pivotal moment for nearly 70 years of European integration: Another post-pandemic, economic shock could expose it to more insular protectionist forces, casting doubts over the bloc’s long term future.