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EU leaders to tackle climate, coronavirus

James Franey
December 10, 2020

EU leaders say they want to put this week's Brexit talks behind them and focus on a promise to cut emissions and coordinate their response to the coronavirus pandemic.

A massive hot air balloon with a banner reading: EU: What planet are you on?!
Environment activists held rallies pushing for an ambitious climate protection planImage: Francisco Seco/AP Photo/picture alliance

EU leaders began a meeting in Brussels on Thursday for a two-day summit after Brexit talks between the UK and the European Commission ended without an agreement.

But European leaders are keen to focus on other issues over the next two days as the bloc grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, and new, tougher targets on reducing CO2 emissions.

"We are fed up with Brexit," said one EU foreign minister, speaking to DW on condition of anonymity. "Leaders didn't want it taking over the summit. We want to concentrate on climate change and other things."

Brexit talks remain deadlocked

Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen walking and talking
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will update EU leaders at the summitImage: Olivier Hoslet/AFP

The only mention of the UK will come when European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen briefly updates governments on the negotiations.

EU diplomats had downplayed the chances of a breakthrough during talks between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and von der Leyen.

A statement released by von der Leyen, a former German defense minister, said the discussion with Johnson was "lively," while UK government sources described them as "frank."

"Very large gaps remain between the two sides and it is still unclear whether these can be bridged," a Downing Street source said.

Both sides have set a deadline of Sunday to decide whether to push ahead for a deal or let Britain leave the current Brexit transition period without one.

Michel Barnier and David Frost
Michel Barnier and David Frost, the EU and UK Brexit negotiators are set to resume talks through SundayImage: Oliver Hoslet/REUTERS

But deadlines have slipped before. Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, told MEPs in a private meeting on Monday that Wednesday was the final day to strike an agreement.

Unblocking the EU budget

The summit enjoyed some early success, reaching an agreement on passing the next seven-year spending cycle. Poland and Hungary had blockaded the €1.1 trillion budget for 2021-2027, as well as a €750 million coronavirus recovery fund over a row about the role of law.

EU leaders reach agreement on budget: DW's Georg Matthes from Brussels

Under the new deal, sanctions cannot be imposed until judges at the European Court of Justice have given their verdict on whether the new rules are legal.

"Germany has worked hard to bridge the differences and find solutions for the concerns of Poland and Hungary while at the same time upholding the rule of law mechanism as agreed with the European Parliament," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on arrival at a Brussels summit. "We will see today if we can find unanimity."

The deal struck still needs to be approved by leaders at the summit and the European Parliament.

EU seeks new green deal

The EU is keen to strike a deal on further slashing emissions over the next decade ahead of a UN climate conference that starts on Saturday.

Leaders will discuss cutting them by at least 55% from 1990 levels. The current 2030 goal is to cut emissions by 40%.

The proposal was unveiled by the European Commission in September during von der Leyen's maiden State of the Union speech.

European Council President Charles Michel said on Wednesday that an agreement is "within our grasp."

But there can no deal on climate change unless Poland's and Hungary's leaders sign off on the 2021-2017 budget.

“If you have no agreement on the first one, then it’s more difficult to solve the other one,” one senior official told Reuters, adding that if the budget is not in place, some countries will lack the EU funding they need to cut emissions.