Brussels/Copenhagen — EU leaders agreed on a landmark stimulus package that will see the bloc issue €750bn of joint debt to help member states mitigate the economic downturn.
The agreement early on Tuesday, after more than four days of acrimonious negotiations in Brussels, required the unanimous approval of all 27 member states and represents a victory for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, who drafted an early outline for the proposal in May.
The emergency fund will give out €390bn of grants and €360bn of low-interest loans.
Almost a third of the funds are earmarked for fighting climate change and, together with the bloc’s next €1-trillion, seven-year budget, will constitute the biggest green stimulus package in history. All expenditure must be consistent with the Paris Agreement’s goal of cutting greenhouse gases.
The emergency funds will not only unleash vital financial support to the southern European economies hit hardest by the coronavirus, but serve as validation that the bloc can offer solidarity to members in need. With more than 100,000 Europeans dead from the virus and an economy to rebuild, investors were looking for a display of unity to sustain the rally in stocks.
“I am relieved,” Merkel said afterward. “We have come up with a response to the biggest crisis the EU has faced.”
Italy, the original European epicentre of the pandemic, is likely to be the biggest beneficiary from the plan and expects to receive about €82bn in grants and about €127bn in loans, according to initial estimates, a senior Italian official said.
Provisions to combat sliding democratic standards in Eastern Europe were weakened at the last-minute to get the deal over the line.
“This agreement sends a concrete signal that Europe is a force for action,” Charles Michel, president of the EU leaders’ council, said at a press conference. “I believe this agreement will be seen as a pivotal moment in Europe’s journey.”
The agreement did not come easy. Talks came close to collapse at several points over the summit as clashing national interests suggested consensus might be out of reach.
While governments all agreed that economic contractions of as much as 10% in some countries called for extraordinary measures, they bickered for hours over the final amount of grants, as well as how future disbursements could be scrutinised.
Crucially, the final compromise included budget rebates for four fiscally hawkish northern countries, reducing their annual net contributions. Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Sweden will get more than €50bn in rebates over seven years.
In the end, it largely came down to offering enough sweeteners to that group, which had been pushing for a smaller package. To bring them on board, Merkel, Macron and leaders from Europe’s South agreed to reduce the grants envelope from €500bn as proposed.
“We are 27 around the table and we managed together to produce a budget,” Macron said at a press conference alongside Merkel. “In which other political sphere in the world is that possible, is that done? None.”
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