EU reaches ‘truly historic’ deal on pandemic recovery after fractious summit

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European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen (L) and European Council President Charles Michel (R) bump elbows at the end of the news conference following a four-day summit at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium, early on July 21, 2020. PHOTO: AFP
The EU needs the deal on economic aid to demonstrate publicly that it can step up to a crisis and stay united. PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - European Union leaders clinched an "historic" deal on a massive stimulus plan for their coronavirus-throttled economies in the early hours of Tuesday (July 21), after a fractious summit lasting almost five days.

The agreement paves the way for the European Commission, the EU's executive, to raise billions of euros on capital markets on behalf of all 27 states, an unprecedented act of solidarity in almost seven decades of European integration.

Summit chairman Charles Michel called the accord, reached at a 5.15 a.m. (0315 GMT), "a pivotal moment" for Europe.

Many had warned that a failed summit amid the coronavirus pandemic would have put the bloc's viability in serious doubt after years of economic crisis and Britain's recent departure.

Stock markets across the European Union opened higher on Tuesday and the euro touched a four-month high of $1.1470.

"This agreement sends a concrete signal that Europe is a force for action," a jubilant Mr Michel told reporters.

The hard-won deal showed the EU could stand together with a common belief in their future.

"This agreement sends a concrete signal that Europe is a force for action," Mr Michel said. "It is about a lot more than money. It is about workers and families, their jobs, their health and their well-being. I believe this agreement will be seen as a pivotal moment in Europe's journey, but it will also launch us into the future."

French President Emmanuel Macron, who spearheaded a push for the deal with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hailed it as"truly historic".

Leaders hope the 750 billion euro (S$1.2 trillion) recovery fund and its related 1.1 trillion euro 2021-2017 budget will help repair the continent's deepest recession since World War Two after the coronavirus outbreak shut down economies.

While strong in symbolism, the deal came at the cost of cuts to proposed investment in climate-friendly funds and did not set conditions for disbursements to countries, such as Hungary and Poland, seen as breaching democratic values.

In an unwieldy club of 27, each with veto power, the summit also exposed fault lines across the bloc that are likely to hinder future decision-making on money as richer northern countries resisted helping out the poorer south.

The Netherlands led a group of "frugal" states with Austria, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, insisting that aid to Italy, Spain and other Mediterranean countries that took the brunt of the pandemic should be mainly in loans, not in non-repayable grants.

"There were a few clashes, but that's all part of the game,"said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, describing a "warm"relationship with his Italian counterpart, Giuseppe Conte.

But Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the frugals' negotiating power was here to stay, suggesting Europe's traditional Franco-German engine will be challenged.

ALMOST A SUMMIT RECORD

Frictions peaked on Sunday night as Mr Macron lost his temper with the frugals, diplomats said, and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki branded them "stingy, egotistic states".

The bickering spun the summit out, making it the EU's second-longest ever, just 20 minutes short of a record set in 2000 in Nice, according to Mr Rutte.

"We would have broken the record at 6:05, but we ended at 5.45," he said.

Under the compromise, the Commission will borrow 750 billion euros using its triple-A debt rating, disbursing 390 billion in grants - less than the originally targeted 500 billion - and 360 billion in cheap loans.

Given the difficulties, talk of Europe's "Hamilton" moment - hailed as such by German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz on Monday in reference to Alexander Hamilton's decision to federalise debts of U.S. states in 1790 - is overblown.

The deal represents a victory for Mrs Merkel and Mr Macron, who drafted an early outline for the proposal in May.

The emergency funds will unleash vital financial support to the southern European economies hit hardest by the virus.

Italy, the original European epicenter of the pandemic, will likely be the biggest beneficiary from the plan and expects to receive about 82 billion euros in grants and about 127 billion euros in loans, according to initial estimates, a senior Italian official said.

Spain will receive 140 billion euros, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said. A little more than half of the transfers to Spain, 72.7 billion euros, will be grants and the rest will be repayable loans.

"It is a great agreement for Europe and a great agreement for Spain," Mr Sanchez told reporters early on Tuesday

The summit deal does not set the EU on the path towards a US-style fiscal union, although some see it as a first step.

Mr Rutte's negotiations won an "emergency brake" to temporarily stop transfers of money from the recovery fund if an EU state was seen as not meeting reform conditions tied to the money.

The frugals also secured larger rebates from the next EU budget, a payback mechanism first won by Britain in the 1980s and which France had hoped to phase out after Brexit.

The recovery plan now faces a potentially difficult passage through the European Parliament and it must be ratified by all EU states. The first money will likely not reach the real economy before the middle of next year, economists say.

The EU has been slow to coordinate its initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic and, already weakened by Britain's departure from the bloc, it needed the deal on economic aid to demonstrate publicly that it can step up to a crisis and stay united.

European nations have done a better job of containing the coronavirus than the United States after a devastating early few months that hit Italy and Spain particularly hard, collaborating on medical, travel and economic fronts.

The European Central Bank has pumped unparalleled amounts of money into economies to keep them going, while capitals hammer out their recovery fund.

Mr Macron said the deal followed long and difficult negotiations, during which concessions had to be made to win over member states whose objections were blocking a deal.

But the concessions were proportionate, and necessary to deliver a recovery plan big enough to be effective, he added.

"There is no such thing as a perfect world, but we have made progress," Mr Macron told a news briefing.

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