The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

European leaders clash in Brussels but ultimately agree on a coronavirus rescue package and new climate goals

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Parliament President David Sassoli and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte during the E.U. summit in Brussels. (Olivier Matthys/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

European leaders gathered in Brussels this week ready to clash on fundamental issues, from democracy to climate change. But they ended a two-day summit on Friday with a string of significant deals, including a plan to give unprecedented money-raising authority to the European Union to help economies struggling through the pandemic.

Although the specter of a disorderly British break from the E.U. on Dec. 31 loomed over the meeting, the prime ministers and presidents spent little time on it. Instead, they fought over a host of other issues — and, ultimately, struck some bargains. Along with a $2.2 trillion spending plan that includes an emergency pandemic fund, leaders committed to sharply reducing greenhouse gas emissions within the next decade.

It was a diplomatic triumph for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who intends to retire next year after a 15-year stint as Europe’s most powerful leader. With Germany holding the rotating presidency of the European Council, Merkel chaired the proceedings and brokered the compromise agreements — though critics said too much was given away in the spirit of a deal.

Europe rallies amid crises, but its divisions show all the more

That the leaders met in person in the middle of a raging pandemic, despite the health concerns, was a measure of the stakes. Videoconferencing is ill-suited for give-and-take negotiations. Two leaders had to skip the summit: Croatia’s is ill with covid-19. Estonia’s is quarantining after being exposed.

“It’s been an extraordinary year, in the strictest sense of the word,” European Council President Charles Michel said after the meeting. “We’ve had to call into question all sorts of things that we thought we knew from before. And this council has been able to show that we work together in a calm and a confident fashion.”

One thing that wasn’t so hard to agree on: Everyone wants good relations with the United States. According to the official declaration after the meeting, the E.U. “looks forward to working together with the United States, in particular to reinforce the global response to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, tackle climate change, enhance the economic recovery, cooperate on digital and technological matters, strengthen mutual trade, address trade disputes, reform the WTO, and promote multilateralism as well as peace and security.”

If only the goals were as simple as listing them.

E.U. money and democratic norms

The summit had the potential to be a bitter showdown, with Hungary and Poland threatening to veto the emergency pandemic fund as long as it made receiving the money conditional on respecting democratic principles.

The leaders of Hungary and Poland have weakened the independence of their judiciaries and media and sidelined their political opponents, all the while using generous E.U. subsidies to hand out contracts to their allies.

Europe’s ‘rule of law’ standoff with Poland and Hungary becomes test over defining values

Their European neighbors have grown increasingly frustrated with the situation — and successfully demanded at a marathon summit in July that if they were going to further integrate and hand new money-raising powers to Brussels, more strings needed to be attached.

But the E.U. operates by consensus when dealing with its toughest questions, so Hungary and Poland had the power to put the brakes on the deal, at a financial cost to themselves and everyone else.

Failure to unlock the spending would have been deeply damaging politically — a sign that Europe’s problems with democracy were spreading into the basic functioning of the bloc. But countries including the Netherlands and Denmark wanted to maintain a hard line.

Ultimately, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki lifted their veto after the other leaders agreed to issue a statement that there would be limits on how the new rules about democratic norms would be applied. Leaders also agreed to delay when the rules go into effect. But they did not change the legal text that underpins the sanctions.

Both sides painted it as a victory.

“We adopted the recovery plan,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, “without conceding on the rule of law.”

Democracy advocates in Hungary said they worried the delay would give Orban the ability to further consolidate power and take over institutions before 2022 elections.

A more ambitious climate goal

Leaders also agreed to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions 55 percent by 2030 compared with 1990 baselines — a more dramatic cut than their previous target of 40 percent. Green advocates said tightening the limits was necessary if Europe is to meet its target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The discussion was fraught. Leaders haggled through the night, reaching a deal only at 7 a.m. in Brussels. But, in the end, everyone got a little bit.

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The 55 percent target remains ambitious even if it is less than the 60 percent originally sought, green advocates say. The target will be measured for the bloc as a whole, meaning that poorer and heavier-emitting Central European countries may have extra slack as their richer neighbors to the west go green more quickly. And the leaders expanded the range of activities that can count toward emission reductions to include carbon-consuming forests and other land use, a shift that may result in watering down the efforts.

“On climate, it’s good that it’s (at least!) -55%,” wrote Bas Eickhout, the co-leader of the Green Party delegation in the European Parliament, on Twitter. “But it's a net target, which means land-use (with big uncertainties & fight on how to count).”

Punishing Turkey

European leaders have also been divided over how to handle an increasingly assertive Ankara, whose naval ships have clashed with European ones in the Mediterranean and which is engaged in gas exploration in Mediterranean waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus.

Greece, Cyprus and France have led a push for wide-ranging sanctions on Turkey. Other European countries, including Germany, have sought to avoid a confrontation, in part because they depend on Turkey to hold back migrants and refugees from entering Europe.

In the end, leaders punted a bit on Turkey sanctions, directing E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to study the issue and agreeing on a more limited range of measures directed at individual Turkish officials involved in the drilling.

“Europe of course remains open to dialogue,” Macron said. “But it will not accept a policy of destabilization of its member states and of its regional environment.”

The outcome of the summit frees E.U. leaders to focus on Brexit — which appears more worrisome than ever — and their pandemic response, as some European countries contend with a worsening second wave even as they plan their vaccine rollout.

Those uncertainties are tricky enough — something Merkel seemed to acknowledge at the end of a typically calm and measured post-summit news conference.

After an E.U. spokesman announced the news conference was over, she said, “Who knows what happens” into her microphone, appearing not to realize it was still on.

Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia, and Ariès reported from Brussels.