EU leaders converge in Brussels, hoping to bridge budget differences

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

EU leaders – including Prime Minister Robert Abela – have converged in Brussels for a special summit in which they will seek to bridge their considerable differences over the bloc’s long-term budget and its Covid-19 recovery plan.

The Special European Council is the first to be held in Brussels since last February, before the pandemic effectively put a stop to travel, though leaders have met via videoconference in the meantime.

Back in February, member states already faced a mammoth task as they sought to agree on the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-27, negotiations complicated by Brexit, and the ensuing loss of EU’s second largest net contributor of EU funds.

Malta aligned itself with the so-called Friends of Cohesion, which argued that the cohesion funds aiming to help less-developed EU regions catch up should be left untouched. But at the other end were the Frugal Four – Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden – net contributors who seek to keep the budget as lean as possible.

The issue has been complicated further with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the European Commission has sought to present a relatively generous recovery plan to counter a more frugal long-term budget in a bid to bridge differences, member states remain far apart even though, given the situation, time may be of the essence.

Malta seeking ‘a just solution’

Abela’s work trip to Brussels is yet to be publicised by the government’s Department of Information, though reports on TVM and on the Labour Party’s station claimed that Malta was seeking a solution that was just and which recognised Malta’s reality.

Though the disagreements on the recovery plan largely reflect those on the EU budget, Malta’s own position appears to diverge from many Friends of Cohesion.

Finance Minister Edward Scicluna had revealed that the government was wary about the plan, not least because of fears that it may spur efforts in favour of tax harmonisation across the EU – to the detriment of Malta’s low-tax regime.

He also said that allocation criteria left Malta at a disadvantage since they failed to account for its particular situation – as a country heavily reliant on tourism and which started out the pandemic with one of the EU’s lowest jobless rates. He also expressed concerns that Malta might end up a net contributor to EU funds for the first time in its history.

The most hygienic of summits

The summit takes place over two days, with the first meeting having started this morning at 10am.

But with the Covid-19 pandemic still ongoing, EU leaders donned face masks as they greeted each other for the first time in months, opting to bump elbows instead of shaking hands to reduce the spread of germs.

Though for some leaders, a generic face mask sufficed, many opted for a custom mask, generally with a national motif.

Abela was no exception to the rule, sporting a black face mask with a small Maltese flag.

As it turns out, such a flag motif was a common choice, perhaps helping leaders recognise each other at a glance even while half their faces are covered. Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa took no chances: his mask even included his own name.

On the other hand, Luxembourg’s premier Xavier Bettel opted for a more informal touch in a bid to bring cheer to the most sterile of EU summits yet: his mask sported the word “moien,” Luxembourgish for good day.