07/21/2020 09:56 EDT

Europe’s Landmark Rescue Plan Counters Nationalist Threat. For Now.

The relief package represents a victory for the idea of a united Europe.

After almost five days of intense negotiations, European Union leaders emerged in the early hours of Tuesday morning with a historic deal for a massive stimulus plan designed to rescue their coronavirus-hit economies.

The size of the 750 billion euro ($857 billion) recovery fund acknowledges the fact that, as a result of the pandemic, which has killed more than 100,000 people across the continent, Europe is facing its worst economic downturn since World War II. In a larger sense, however, it also represents a major victory for the idea of a united Europe in the face of rising euroskeptic, nationalist and protectionist forces that have looked to capitalize on Britain’s protracted departure from the EU.

“We did it! Europe is strong. Europe is united!” European Council President Charles Michel said at a dawn press conference in Brussels on Tuesday.

“We have demonstrated that the magic of the European project works, because when we think that it is impossible, there is a spring in our step thanks to respect and cooperation.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel bump elbows at the end of the news conference announcing the EU's landmark economic rescue plan.

Under the terms of the deal, 390 billion euros will be available in the form of grants to countries most in need of economic stimulus. The other 360 billion euros will be loans to countries that apply for them. 

Poland will be a top beneficiary of the package, as will southern European countries like Italy and Spain, which have borne the brunt of the pandemic in Europe.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the deal was “truly historic” and that he was convinced the measures could meet the challenge of the present moment.

“We have put in place the capability to borrow collectively, to put in place a collective recovery plan, for the first time,” Macron said.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said that the meeting — one of the longest in EU history — proved that the bloc could not be accused of doing “too little, too late.”

“Europe still has the courage and imagination to think big,” she said. “Europe as a whole now has a big chance to come out stronger from the crisis.”

JOHN THYS via Getty Images
French President Emmanuel Macron during a meeting at the EU summit. He called the deal that European leaders eventually reached “truly historic.” 

The ability of European nations to form a united front to fight the coronavirus has not always been certain. Indeed, in the early days of the pandemic, national interests seemed to trump larger European ideals, leaving the future of the EU increasingly in doubt.

Countries rushed to close their borders and stockpile medical supplies. In early March, when Italy requested face masks and other medical gear through the European Union’s civil protection mechanism, EU member states responded with silence.

And in the face of an unprecedented economic crisis, with businesses shuttered and millions of people out of work, long-standing rifts between southern European countries and more fiscally conservative northern ones, especially Austria, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands (also known as the “frugal four”), threatened to tear the EU apart.

Those north-south divisions carried over into the summit itself, which began on Friday. Macron framed the meeting as a “moment of truth” for Europe when he arrived in Brussels, following weeks of tension over the scale and scope of the rescue fund.

EU leaders had originally proposed that 500 billion euros be offered in the form of grants, with the other 250 billion euros offered as loans. But during the summit, the frugal four — led in particular by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte — pushed hard to decrease the size of the rescue fund, and to have a greater portion of the money made available as loans, rather than grants.

Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the summit. The two leaders pushed to approve a robust economic stimulus package in the face of opposition from the "frugal four" nations.

At times, the negotiations became acrimonious. Macron reportedly lost patience in the early hours of Monday, banging his fist on the table in frustration over the frugal four impeding a deal.

When Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz left a meeting to take a phone call, Macron reacted angrily, according to Politico.

“You see? He doesn’t care. He doesn’t listen to others, has a bad attitude,” Macron said. “He handles his press and basta!”

The French president also reportedly lashed out at Rutte, accusing the Netherlands of acting like Brexit Britain by taking a hard-line, obstructionist stance at the summit.

At one point on Saturday night, Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel walked out of a meeting with the frugal four. In response, Rutte accused them of running off in a “bad mood.”

The tensions reflected the high stakes of the talks. Considering Britain’s recent departure from the EU and a vocal anti-EU base in the Netherlands, a failure to compromise could have risked further splintering in Europe, or even a “Nexit.”

Nationalist figures, including Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France, expressed outrage at the final deal. 

“MADNESS!!” Wilders tweeted early Tuesday morning. “Billions thrown away that we should have spent in our own country.”

Macron “has just signed the worst agreement for France in the history of the EU!” Le Pen wrote. “To protect his ego, he sacrifices our future and our independence.”

FRANCISCO SECO via Getty Images
European leaders at the EU summit on Saturday.

On Tuesday morning, however, after the final deal had been struck, Macron sounded a more conciliatory tone toward the frugal northern nations.

“If we don’t take into account these realities, we would put these leaders in a difficult spot and favor the rise of populists,” Macron said at a news conference, acknowledging that concessions were necessary, particularly given the threat of rising nationalism in certain European countries.

“It’s legitimate that we have different sensibilities,” he added. “There is no such thing as a perfect world, but we have made progress. I think we can legitimately rejoice.”

With reporting from Reuters.

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