Budget and Brexit breakdown plunge Brussels into crisis

EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier tweeted that much-anticipated Brexit negotiations had been postponed. Credit: Flickr.

Key Brexit talks suspended after negotiator tests positive for coronavirus

Talks between the UK and European Union over a Brexit trade deal were suspended on a tumultuous day for the EU as the ongoing budget crisis continued to dominate the agenda.

With the end of the transition period looming, Thursday’s Brexit negotiations were eagerly awaited to quell fears of No Deal. However, any hopes for the development of a fresh deal were dashed after it was announced that a member of the EU’s negotiation team had contracted Covid-19. EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier confirmed in a tweet that he, alongside his British counterpart David Frost, had made the decision to postpone the planned session today.

With less than seven weeks to go to finalise a trade deal, the implications of a lost session are feared to be wide-reaching. Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney warned earlier this week that both sides “were running out of time” as attention moved to fisheries and fair competition – two issues that have lingered on the agenda since the outset of the negotiations. 

The EU also faces an additional crisis with no clear escape route after Hungary and Poland voted against the union’s seven-year budget at a meeting in Brussels this week. The 27 member states were due to meet again today in a session originally intended to focus on the ongoing pandemic.

Following months of negotiations, the historic €1.8tn budget and €750bn coronavirus recovery fund were blocked by Hungary and Poland in a meeting of EU ambassadors on Monday.

Hungary and Poland disputed the inclusion of a clause in the package that stated that the EU could stop funding to any country found to be in violation of the bloc’s democratic standards.

Without a unanimous vote, the entire financial package could not be signed off, throwing the EU’s budgetary plans for 2021 into disarray.

As both Poland and Hungary had previously been investigated by the European Commission for breaching the bloc’s democratic standards, it is widely believed that Hungary found an ally in Poland in vetoing the budget.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a vocal critic of the EU, claimed the clause was a move to punish those nations that opposed the EU’s immigration strategy, while Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro compared the “rule-of-law” clause to “political and institutionalised enslavement”. However, according to a Politico report on the crisis, both countries looked set to benefit massively from the budget and economic recovery package, causing frustrations in Brussels.

The ongoing standoff also places additional strain on the bloc’s other struggling member states as governments grapple with managing the battle against the second wave of coronavirus. Little progress is expected to be made in a conversation that was originally supposed to focus on the pandemic. 

Despite the political turmoil that has ensued, the EU maintains the importance of the mechanism that has caused such strife. A spokesperson for the EU told City Post: “The President of the European Council continues to believe that for the future of Europe, two subjects are equally important: agreeing and implementing an ambitious and effective economic and social response to the crisis and ensuring the respect of the rule of law.”

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