The leaders of EU member nations are preparing to gather in person Friday for the first time since February to thrash out a compromise on a one-off, 500 billion euro ($569 billion) stimulus package proposed by Germany and France.
Much of the stimulus money would go to help countries that were most affected by the virus and its economic impacts, such as Italy and Spain. Some fiscally conservative EU countries oppose the French-German plan because it would entail borrowing by the bloc as a whole.
The debate has been linked to a discussion on the 27-country bloc’s long-term budget, already complicated by Brexit and ongoing friction over funding cuts for countries that fail to meet human rights and rule of law standards.
“I don't know whether we will reach an agreement," Merkel said of the two-day meeting in Brussels where leaders are expected to debate a massive package of debt mutualization, grants, aid and loans worth 1.85 trillion euros ($2.1 trillion.)
“It needs to be an extraordinary effort that shows Europe wants to stand together at this difficult time. This has a political dimension that goes beyond the number,” she told reporters at the German government’s guest house near Berlin where she was meeting with Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte.
“I don't know whether one meeting will be enough or whether we will need to meet a second time before the end of the summer,” Merkel added, noting that an agreement will require unanimity among all 27 EU members. “I would be glad if it was just once.”
Conte called for “quick action,” warning that any delay would slow down Europe’s economic recovery. “Perhaps we should rather build highways than bridges, to get there faster,” he added. Italy, the first Western country hit hard by the coronavirus, has now reported over 243,000 confirmed virus cases and almost 35,000 deaths in the pandemic.
Conte thanked Germany for treating dozens of Italian patients at a time when Italy's own hospitals were strained by the crush of people with COVID-19. “That was an incredible help which happened at a very difficult time for our country,” he said. “It was indeed proof of solidarity, concrete solidarity.”
Merkel said further solidarity was required to deal with the consequences of the pandemic, adding that nobody should take the blame for what happened. “Italians got through those difficult weeks with admirable discipline and patience,” she said, citing footage that showed people in Italy standing at their apartment windows singing songs of hope together during the height of the country's outbreak.
“And that's why we also want to conduct these talks in Brussels with great friendship and solidarity, to give us all a chance to get out of the great humanitarian disaster but also the great economic weakness that has arisen from (the pandemic) as best as possible,” the German leader said.