Coronavirus: Wrangling over huge EU recovery plan enters fourth day

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The talks continue to be difficult as leaders struggle to come to an agreement

EU talks aimed at reaching an agreement on a huge post-coronavirus recovery fund have stretched into a fourth day.

There are reportedly deep differences between the leaders, who are trying to negotiate the deal at the same time as the bloc’s next long-term budget.

Some member states believe the proposed €750bn ($857bn; £680bn) package is too large and should come as repayable loans, rather than grants.

The talks are reported to have been testy, with tempers flaring at times.

In the early hours of Monday morning, French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly banged his hand on the table and threatened to walk out of the discussions.

And Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has admitted leaders were “close to failure” and talks could still “fall apart”.

Discussions are due to resume at 14:00 GMT on Monday for what is now the longest EU summit since Nice 2000, when talks lasted five days.

President of the European Council Charles Michel reminded the leaders that more than 600,000 people had died of the virus worldwide, and he hoped that the “headline tomorrow is that the EU has accomplished mission impossible”.

On Monday morning, the total number of confirmed cases of coronavirus was almost 14.5 million globally.

What’s hampering compromise?

EU leaders first met on Friday in Brussels to discuss the bloc’s €1tn seven-year budget and the planned stimulus package to help countries recover the pandemic.

It was the first face-to-face meeting between leaders since governments began imposing lockdowns in a bid to stop the spread of the virus in March.

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Media captionGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel bumps elbows with EU Council leader Charles Michel

Member states are split between those hit hardest by the outbreak, and those concerned about the costs of the recovery plan.

The self-proclaimed frugal four (Sweden, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands) along with Finland, have been unwavering in their refusal to allow €500bn to be offered in the forms of grants to countries hardest hit by the effects of Covid-19.

Led by Mr Rutte, they now say that €375bn is as far as they will go, plus conditions including the right to block requests. The others, including Spain and Italy, are refusing to go below €400bn.

Italy in particular was one of the earliest European countries to suffer an outbreak and has recorded 35,000 deaths – one of the highest tolls in the world. Italian PM Giuseppe Conte said Europe was “under the blackmail of the ‘frugals'” and described negotiations as “heated”.

The new proposal being put on the table is €390bn. The Austrian chancellor has tweeted, suggesting there are signs of progress.

Hungarian PM Viktor Orban accused Mr Rutte of a personal vendetta and of trying to link financial help to political issues. Mr Orban, and his ally Poland, have threatened to veto the package if it adopts a policy of withholding funds from nations who do not meet certain democratic principles.

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European Council President Charles Michel, left, with Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, right

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said there was “a way to go”, but that it was possible a deal could be achieved.

Mrs Merkel said: “I still cannot say whether we will find a solution. There is a lot of goodwill but also many different positions.”

Tempers flare

Analysis by Gavin Lee, BBC Europe reporter, Brussels

This is now the longest European summit since Nice 20 years ago, which went into day five when leaders agreed to expand the membership. This time around, money is at the heart of the negotiations and the issue of trust is the cause of the quarrelling.

Tempers have flared, and there has been some name calling, too. Mostly at the Dutch leader, Mark Rutte. Bulgaria’s leader Boyko Borissov accused Mr Rutte of “acting like the policeman of Europe”. Hungary’s Viktor Orban said, “It’s Dutch guy who’s to blame… I don’t know why he dislikes us.”

French officials tell me President Macron “banged his fists” on the table in the early hours of Monday morning, as he told the “frugal four” that he thought they were putting the European project in danger. An Italian diplomat said Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told Mr Rutte: “You might be a hero in your home country for a few days. But after a few weeks you will be held responsible for blocking an effective European response to Covid-19.”

These negotiations may become known unofficially as the “stiff-leg summit” – a term being used by the Dutch here meaning that Mr Rutte has been sticking to his guns.

Now, the prime ministers, presidents and chancellors are taking a power nap. It’s much needed.

There was a notable show of social-distancing etiquette when the leaders first arrived, faces covered by masks. But photos from Sunday evening show that the masks have slipped, along, it seems, with their approach to diplomacy.

Where is Europe at with the virus?

Many European nations have ended lockdown restrictions, but the virus remains a major threat.

Officials are facing localised outbreaks across the continent, with the largest appearing in Spain’s north-eastern region of Catalonia. About four million people in ​​Barcelona, ​​La Noguera and El Segrià have been ordered to stay at home for 15 days.

Among the measures imposed are a ban on public or private meetings of more than 10 people; a ban on visits to nursing homes; and the closure of gyms and nightclubs.

EU budget commissioner Johannes Hahn tweeted a “solemn reminder” on Saturday that the pandemic was “not over”.

“High time to reach an agreement which allows us to provide the urgently needed support for our citizens and economies,” he wrote.

How is the virus spreading elsewhere in the world?

On Saturday the World Health Organization (WHO) recorded the largest single-day increase in cases of the virus globally. The largest increases were in Brazil, India, South Africa and the US.

Florida is currently the epicentre of the US epidemic. The state recorded more than 10,000 new infections and 90 more deaths on Saturday, bringing its total number of cases to more than 337,000 and its death toll to more than 5,000.

In Brazil, where the coronavirus and measures to contain it have been highly politicised, cases continue to surge – although the WHO announced last week that infections were no longer increasing exponentially.

Scientists have also warned that India could still be months away from the peak of its outbreak – despite already having the third-highest number of confirmed cases. Hospitals in the worst-hit cities, including Mumbai and Bangalore, have been overwhelmed with patients.

India recorded another 34,884 infections in a 24-hour period on Saturday, and another 671 deaths linked to coronavirus.

And South Africa, which saw one of the largest single-day rises in cases, has the highest number of confirmed infections on the African continent.

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