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EU lawmakers scrutinize coronavirus recovery fund

July 23, 2020

The EU leaders agreed to the historic recovery package following marathon talks, and it is now up to the European Parliament to vote on the deal. While discussing the package, EU lawmakers signaled their displeasure.

EU Commission head Ursula von der Leyen leaves the main EU Parliament chamber in Brussels
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. Seco

Lawmakers from all major groups in the European Parliament criticized the proposed EU budget deal during the special session on Thursday, which is key to implementing the €1.8 trillion ($2 trillion) coronavirus aid and budget package. 

The deal, aimed at helping hard-hit bloc nations recover from the economic fallout of the novel coronavirus pandemic, was agreed on Tuesday by EU leaders following four days of heated debates. The marathon talks were close to breaking down on several occasions, and France's Emmanuel Macron and Germany's Angela Merkel walked out together in protest at one point.

Addressing the parliament on Thursday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the deal was a "a bitter pill to swallow." While urging lawmakers to vote for the deal, she also recognized "painful and regrettable decisions" on the future funding of planned EU health and research programs.

In response, the head of the center-right bloc Manfred Weber said it was "unbelievable" that dramatic cuts to the health sector were being discussed in the times of the pandemic.

"We are for the moment not ready to swallow the bitter pill you were referring to," Manfred said.

A clause linking EU money to the rule of law that could jeopardize funds for Poland and Hungary is also coming under scrutiny.

Read more: EU opens legal case against Poland over judicial reform

European Parliament to make the deal 'better'

Talking to DW, European Parliament Vice-President Katharina Barley described the recovery deal as a "compromise between the leaders of member states."

"But the European Parliament is the voice of the people, the only directly elected body. So we are here to add a more European perspective," said the German Social Democrat politician.

The assembly "has a chance to make it better," said Barley, who also has UK citizenship.

Katarina Barley speaks to DW

When asked about the clause linking the money to the rule of law, Barley said she would be happy about if it would be clear "how it is going to turn out."

She warned that there were various interpretations of the clause.

"Have there been some kind of deals behind closed doors? We do not know. This is why we want a much clearer formula," Barley said, warning that the rule of law was "deteriorating in a lot of member states."

Read more: Opinion: Extraordinary times call for extraordinary EU measures

A 'pivotal' moment of EU history

Lawmakers will list their proposed alterations to the budget then start talks with the bloc's executive arm, the European Commission, and the EU presidency, which rotates between countries and is currently held by Germany. Parliament is expected to revisit proposed cuts in the areas of research, environment and migration.

The European lawmakers, who have the final say in approving the budget, are expected to vote later Thursday on a resolution that strongly criticizes the conclusions of the summit. 

Von der Leyen also emphasized that the EU budget and protecting the rule of law go hand-in-hand.

European Council President Charles Michel urged EU lawmakers to back the deal, reiterating comments he made on Tuesday that it was "pivotal" in European history.

"This response is massive compared to the size of the economy. Europe's response is greater than that of the United States or China," added the Council president.

What is in the recovery package?

The package includes a €750-billion ($869-billion) fund that will be given to countries in the form of loans and grants, as well as a seven-year €1 trillion EU budget.

Italy, which was initially the European epicenter of the virus, is set to receive 28% of the total funds, or €209 billion. That figure includes €81 billion in grants and €127 billion in loans.

Greece will receive €72 billion under the plan, in a move that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called a "national success."

kmm, dj/msh (Reuters, AFP, dpa)

This article has been updated to reflect that a final European Parliament vote on the EU's multi-year budget and coronavirus recovery fund will not happen on July 23.