BRUSSELS/BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday called for a swift agreement on the European Union’s mass economic stimulus to advance unity that would strengthen the bloc as it recovers from the coronavirus crisis.
Speaking to European lawmakers in Brussels as Germany assumed the EU presidency until the end of the year, Merkel called the pandemic the biggest challenge ever for the EU, where the euro zone economy is set to shed a record 8.7% this year.
“We all know that my visit today is taking place against the background of the biggest trial the European Union has faced in its history,” she said on her first foreign trip since coronavirus struck in Europe.
“Europe will emerge from the crisis stronger than ever if we strengthen cohesion and solidarity,” she added as parliamentarians – all wearing face masks – sat separated by empty seats.
Merkel underlined the need for solidarity across the 27-nation EU, which has been tested in recent months as governments acted alone to secure medical kit or tighten their borders.
She said the depth of economic crisis caused by the pandemic meant that member states would need to compromise to sign off on a joint recovery fund.
“We want to reach an agreement swiftly, we have seen a great economic upheaval and we cannot waste any time,” she said. “I hope we will reach an agreement before the summer recess.”
Fiscally conservative and wealthy northern countries have so far failed to agree with the high-debt southern states hardest hit by the pandemic over the proposed 750-billion-euro ($847 billion) fund that would be tied to the next joint budget worth another 1.1 trillion euros in 2021-27.
EU leaders will try to narrow their differences at face-to-face talks in Brussels on July 17-18 but their chairman, Charles Michel, said separately on Wednesday there was still “a lot of work to do” to get a deal.
Merkel said her priorities also included shoring up fundamental rights that the health emergency has threatened.
“We have seen lies and disinformation, and that is no way to fight a pandemic. Democracies need truth and transparency,” she said, stressing the need for Europe “to rely more on itself”.
Lawmakers set expectations high for Merkel, the leader of the EU’s largest economy, to deal with other challenges from climate change to its troubled ties with China to Brexit.
“I will continue to push for a good solution, but we should also prepare for a possibility of a no-deal scenario,” she said of the EU’s tortuous divorce with Britain. ($1 = 0.88 euros)
(Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt and Philip Blenkinsop, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Angus MacSwan)