E.U. Leaders Meet to Discuss Virus Rescue Plan, With Obstacles Ahead

Domestic political pressures and longstanding cultural differences are putting a brake on Angela Merkel’s push for swift agreement.

BRUSSELS — European Union leaders gathered on Friday to start hammering out a giant aid package to help their economies recover from the coronavirus calamity. But even before they began, the haggling had exposed fundamental differences between member states that must be finessed in coming days if they are to succeed in saving Europe’s economy.

The major sticking point is how much latitude to give those receiving the aid to spend it as they please. Since much of the money is guaranteed by wealthier northern states, some of them are demanding that strings be attached to push economic, political, environmental and social reforms.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, whose nation recently took over the European Union’s rotating presidency and who has led efforts to push ahead with the package, previously sounded optimistic. But she was cautious as she arrived about the prospects of reaching a deal.

“It would be desirable but we must also face reality,” she said. “I expect very difficult negotiations,.”

The talks will continue at least into Saturday night, and no announcement is expected until then.

It was the first time E.U. leaders held an in-person meeting since the outbreak of the pandemic that has upended so many of their plans, and officials hoped that being together would help them advance compromise faster.

Video showed them wearing masks and greeting each other with gentle bows and elbow-bumps. The leaders of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — who have most challenged the bloc’s liberal, democratic principles — broke ranks and posed together maskless.

The logistics around organizing the meeting in the time of Covid-19 were cumbersome. Special floor markings indicated distancing and the preferred flow of officials in the building.

The leaders met in the biggest room in the new Europa building. It fits 300 people. Only the heads of 27 governments and the leaders of E.U. institutions were admitted. Earlier guidance had indicated that the leaders would be allowed on occasion to be visited by close advisers. But the usual dozen-plus entourage per leader is a thing of the past: they were limited to five advisers each.

The show of bonhomie disguised political pressures and longstanding cultural differences that have slowed the quest for a swift agreement spearheaded by Ms. Merkel along with France’s president, Emmanuel Macron.



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