German chancellor Angela Merkel “is acting as the dean of the European Council” who understands both western and eastern Europe. © REUTERS

The European Council meeting last week was a blockbuster. The weighty issues EU leaders needed to tackle included the approval of a new 7-year budget and an unprecedented common debt-funded recovery package; a challenge from Hungary and Poland to rule-of-law conditions to govern payouts from those funds; a legally binding target for carbon emissions cuts by 2030; sanctions on Turkey for its adventurism in the eastern Mediterranean; and Brexit.

It took an all-nighter, but the leaders managed to agree on all of these. Naysayers can argue they did so by adopting a convoluted and watered-down set of conclusions, and that rather than resolving their differences, leaders put them off to be fought over another day.

Hungary and Poland were promised not to be singled out for political reasons, and will challenge the rule of law regulation in court. To get a deal on a 55 per cent carbon cut, Poland had to be reassured it would not suffer disproportionately because of its reliance on coal. Making good on these reassurances will create difficulties down the line.

But these so-called Brussels fudges should not detract from the summit’s importance, veteran EU-watchers suggest.

Luuk van Middelaar, an author of several books about Europe and one-time adviser to a president of the European Council, points out that the “most momentous 2020 decisions are those which have now been sealed” — the Franco-German push for a large amount of grants to weaker members for the post-coronavirus recovery, with the rule of law provision as its “final hurdle”.

This “has shifted the position of Germany in Europe — it is no longer in the north [but] in the centre on this financial issue,” says Mr van Middelaar. “It gives more power to the commission to raise money on financial markets, it will open a future discussion on EU taxes. So that’s all quite big as a political and policy harvest.”

Last week’s summit “had the same feel” as the June 1988 European Council in Hanover, says Brigid Laffan, professor and director of the Robert Schuman centre at the European University Institute. That summit signed off on the single market and launched the Delors committee which would design the euro.

“Of course no European Council can ever solve all the issues”, says Ms Laffan, but the meeting’s conclusions act as “staging documents” to create momentum for further work. “They got the agreement on reducing emissions by 2030 . . . I don’t think of that as ‘when push comes to shove’. It’s strategic and really big”.

As for the rule of law compromise, Mr van Middelaar calls it “an agreement to disagree” in order to unblock the budget and recovery funds. But he emphasises that “they fudged it themselves”, no longer devolving the conflict to the commission or the courts. “For the first time it’s landing at the European Council table” and national leaders can no longer avoid the fundamental “tension between the EU’s self-image as value-based [and its] interest in keeping the continent united”.

The spring and summer of 2020 was a moment of “geopolitical solitude”, with China pursuing “mask diplomacy” and the “implosion” of the US coronavirus response, he says. This “triggered an impalpable feeling that we’re out here alone — so what do we share? What holds us together?”

Ms Laffan says that Brexit, too, has been “very salutary”.

“It has forced member states to focus on what they share and want to protect,” she said, adding: “The EU has moved from politics of regulation to the politics of power.”

German chancellor Angela Merkel “made a big difference” personally, says Mr van Middelaar. “She is acting as the dean of the European Council” and as a rare leader to understand both western and eastern Europe.

If history judges this summit as momentous as the Hanover one, it will be remembered that both happened under a German presidency.

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