(CN) — Faced with a full menu of crises, European Union leaders on Thursday approved a massive coronavirus stimulus package, moved closer to agreeing to an even bigger reduction in greenhouse gases and prepared to deal with an acrimonious divorce from the United Kingdom, a precious former member now turning its back on Europe.
EU leaders met in Brussels on Thursday for a summit due to end on Friday. They quickly dispatched with the most pressing issue on the agenda and approved a massive $2.2 trillion seven-year EU budget that includes about $910 billion in funds to help Europe recover from the devastating coronavirus pandemic.
The recovery package was in danger of not getting approved after Hungary and Poland objected to provisions that allowed budget and stimulus funds to be withheld from member states viewed as violating rule-of-law principles. Both Hungary and Poland are run by right-wing nationalist governments that are accused of undermining the rule of law, squashing opposition voices, concentrating power within their hands and violating core EU values.
Faced with the prospect of losing funds, Budapest and Warsaw spent weeks threatening to veto the budget and all-important stimulus package unless the rule-of-law provisions were stripped. Prior to the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel brokered a compromise that satisfied Hungary and Poland and they lifted their veto threat on Thursday.
The compromise allows the EU's highest court, the European Court of Justice, to examine the legality of the rule-of-law conditions, a process that could lead to a lengthy legal battle and delay the rule-of-law mechanism from being applied any time soon.
The breakthrough was hailed by most European leaders as a stroke of clever brokering by Merkel, Europe's most powerful politician and a leader viewed as central to EU policy making. Germany also holds the rotating presidency of the European Council, a body representing national governments.
Supporters said the compromise does not water down the rule-of-law conditions and suggested the EU high court would quickly deal with the legal challenges to it.
“If we don't achieve this compromise we will all be losers,” said Gitanas Nauseda, the president of Lithuania. “Those financial programs are of extreme importance for everyone.”
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said it was pivotal to tie the recovery funds to the rule of law but he added that the money needs to start flowing to “ensure we have the firepower to reignite and rejuvenate the European Union economy.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a controversial figure in European political circles because of his advocacy for a pro-Christian Europe founded on illiberal democracy, called the deal a “victory of the commonsense.”
“We are fighting for the victory of commonsense because it is obvious when our nations and so many millions of people are in real need because of the pandemic and because of the economic consequences of that, we have to behave reasonably,” he said.
Still, the deal was viewed by critics as again exposing the weaknesses of EU institutions and decision making which often depends on unanimity among its 27 members. Some critics said the authoritarian governments in Hungary and Poland came out as winners.
“Europe under the leadership of Angela Merkel, due to retire in less than a year, had a Faustian choice to make: It could stand up for its values, even at the cost of delaying a necessary infusion of money, or it could get the cash flowing, but at the price of selling its soul. Unfortunately, the EU failed the test,” wrote Andreas Kluth, a columnist for Bloomberg.
Another big topic for EU leaders was a decision on whether to back a proposal to reduce greenhouse emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990. At present, the EU has set a goal of cutting them by 40%. The EU sees itself as a leader in efforts to tackle climate change and its long-term budgets and plans are placing renewable energy and other climate initiatives at the center.
The EU hopes China and the United States under President-elect Joe Biden will join it in making climate change a priority. Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris climate agreement once he is in the White House. President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the treaty.
Prior to the summit, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said agreeing to that goal was “within our grasp.”
“This would be a major achievement and would underpin our claim to play a leading role in fighting climate change,” he said in a statement.
Achieving its emissions goals will not be easy and several EU nations, including Poland and the Czech Republic, still rely heavily on coal-fired power plants. Still, EU leaders were expected to back the ambitious emissions goals.
Hanging over the summit was the endgame to negotiations with the U.K. over a trade deal before it formally leaves the EU on Jan. 1 at the end of an 11-month transition period.
Talks between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the EU appear to be faltering. On Thursday, Johnson warned Brits to prepare for a no-deal Brexit and the EU set in motion contingency plans to deal with that scenario, which would mean the imposition of passport and customs checks between the EU and the U.K., tariffs and many other disruptions.
As an EU member, U.K. goods and people have been flowing across the English Channel largely freely but that will change on Jan. 1, especially if the U.K. and EU do not agree to a trade deal.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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