EU leaders go into extra time as tempers fray at coronavirus summit

By Daniel Boffey in Brussels

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron said they are willing to walk away from a summit of EU leaders, as they arrived at the third day of a long and acrimonious debate on the terms of a €750bn (£682bn) pandemic recovery fund.

With the EU split between northern and southern member states as well as eastern and western, France’s president and the German chancellor both indicated their patience was waning despite the need to respond to the economic recession facing the bloc.

“We are going into the third day of negotiations today and it is certainly the decisive one,” Merkel said. “At this point, we’ve properly worked through various issues including the size of the fund, how it is managed and also issues regarding the rule of law. I still can’t tell if there will be a solution.

“There’s lots of goodwill, but there are also many positions,” she added. “That’s why I will be among those pushing for an agreement, but it is also possible that there will be no result today.”

Arriving at the reconvened summit on Sunday, Macron told reporters: “I believe it is still possible. But these compromises, and I say it very clearly, will not be done at the expense of European ambition.”

The leaders are split over the size both of a recovery fund and the seven-year budget due to start next year.

There is also stark division over the nature of the conditions attached to the emergency funding and the balance between grants and loans on offer to countries hit by the crisis.

Saturday’s discussions dragged late into the night. Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, publicly accused the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Sweden of being “misers” while the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, claimed the Dutch were trying to rewrite the EU’s rules with their insistence on a veto on the disbursement of emergency funds.

Macron and Merkel had also abruptly walked away from negotiations with the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, at one stage during the evening, such was their frustration at attempts by the northern member states to reduce the size of the recovery fund.

“We are stalled, it is proving very complicated, more complicated than expected, there are many discussions on what we are discussing that we are unable to resolve,” Conte had said in a video message on his Facebook page.

The summit had been markedly bad-tempered on Friday, its first day, and its chairman, Charles Michel, the president of the European council, was forced to table a new set of proposals on Saturday morning in an attempt to reboot negotiations.

Under Michel’s proposal for the recovery fund, the level of grants would be reduced from the €500bn initially proposed to €450bn. But the northern member states are seeking to cut that further, to Germany and France’s irritation.

A member state would also be allowed to hold up the disbursement of the funds by making a “request within three days … to bring the matter without delay, to the European council or [finance ministers] to satisfactorily address the matter”.

The Netherlands, among others, wants tough conditions on the distribution of funds, especially in the context of the Polish and Hungarian governments, which have faced accusations of failing to respect the rule of law.

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Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.

This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.

In June 2020, Beijing suffered from a new cluster of coronavirus cases which caused authorities to re-implement restrictions that China had previously been able to lift. In the UK, the city of Leicester was unable to come out of lockdown because of the development of a new spike of coronavirus cases. Clusters also emerged in Melbourne, requiring a re-imposition of lockdown conditions.

Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry is that with a vaccine still many months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

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The Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has insisted he cannot be expected to take on extra national debt in order for the EU to make cash payments to member states without his parliament having a say. Boyko Borissov, the Bulgarian prime minister, accused his fellow leader on Friday of wanting to be “the police of Europe”.

On Sunday, Viktor Orbán, the nationalist prime minister of Hungary, accused Rutte of behaving like communists dealing with dissidents. “They would like to introduce a new mechanism that didn’t exist until now”, he told reporters. “I think it is questionable whether it has a basis in the treaty at all. I am coming from an ex-communist country. When the communist regime decided to attack us they use unclarified legal terms exactly as the same as written in the proposal of the Dutch man… Saying general deficiencies. When I was arrested by the police and I asked them what I have done which is illegal they say general efficiencies. What the fuck does it mean?”

On the long-term budget, Michel is also offering an increase of €50m to the annual Austrian rebate and an extra €25m per year for Denmark and Sweden.

Morawiecki gave his reading of the situation in a tweet: “There is a group of countries that we call a group of misers, and they call themselves frugal, who want a smaller contribution to the budget, which we call the budget for rebuilding Europe.”

The proposed change in the proportion of grants and loans in the recovery fund is facing opposition from Italy.

“We are negotiating hard with the Netherlands but also with other so-called frugal countries that do not share the need for such a substantial response, especially with regard to subsidies, but they also question loans,” the country’s prime minister said.

If the EU leaders fail to find a compromise this weekend, a second summer summit in the last week of July could be on the cards.

“The negotiations are difficult, perhaps one of the most difficult I have ever been involved in, yet the spirit of compromise has not yet disappeared,” tweeted Latvia’s prime minister Krišjānis Kariņš.