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EU reaches historic deal on pandemic recovery after fractious summit

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) —  European Union leaders clinched an historic deal on a massive stimulus plan for their coronavirus-throttled economies in the early hours of Tuesday, 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.

World shares climbed to their highest since February and the euro briefly hit its strongest since March on news of the deal.

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

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 ($857.33 billion) recovery fund and its related 1.1 trillion euro 2021-2027 budget will help repair the continent’s deepest recession since World War Two after the coronavirus outbreak shut down economies.

Germany Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said that, with the agreement, the chances of “a cautious, slow recovery” in the second half of this year had increased enormously.

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 faultlines 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 so-called 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.

Frictions peaked on Sunday night as 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-ever longest, just 20 minutes short of a record set in 2000 in Nice, according to Rutte. “We would have broken the record at 6:05, but we ended at 5.45,” he said.

 

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