In the history of the European Union, many issues have been deemed the last straw, the defining blow that would render it unworkable once and for all. If nothing else, European integration is an extraordinarily puzzling process, made even more complex by its densely institutionalised set-up. It is as difficult to understand as it is to govern.
Yet, despite all the vicissitudes the EU has endured, the project has thus far proven resilient. With virtually every global leader facing the political test of handling the Covid-19 crisis, new research by the Pew Research Center has shown more people hold a favourable view of the EU than not in every member state, with a median of 66% of respondents approving of the bloc.
Perhaps more interestingly, 60% of those surveyed in the UK, which formally left the EU on 31 January 2020, said they now felt positively about the single market; an increase of six percentage points over last year and the highest rating recorded in Pew’s global attitudes survey for Britain.
In terms of leadership in responding to the pandemic, UK respondents showed a higher degree of confidence in German chancellor Angela Merkel (76%) and French president Emmanuel Macron (64%) than the prime minister, Boris Johnson (51%). Regardless of how positively EU officials are perceived, however, this data does not account for the challenges they are actually facing at the moment.
Beyond Brexit negotiations, which are incontrovertibly at crunch time now, the bloc has run into yet another stalemate over the carefully negotiated €1.82tn budget-and-recovery package, which was agreed by all 27 members of the union back in July.
On Monday, Hungary and Poland used their veto power to block the finalisation of a new mechanism, the Own Resources Decision, which would allow the EU to borrow money for its new €750bn recovery fund. Budapest and Warsaw justified their stance citing opposition to a conditionality tool that could see funds cut off to a member state found to be violating the rule of law in certain circumstances attached to the budget.
The standoff will be the top item on the agenda during a video conference among EU heads of state and government tomorrow. But even if the rest of its member states were willing to concede to Hungary and Poland’s objections, the seven-year budget still requires agreement from members of the European parliament, who have pushed hard for said rule-of-law mechanism.
The room for conciliation is very limited, and so are the options. Many eyes are now set on Merkel, who since September has led the council of the EU presidency’s efforts to appease Budapest and its illiberal allies, while reassuring the European parliament that no rule of law breaches would be rewarded with taxpayer money.
Of all EU leaders, the German chancellor has proven to have the negotiating skill to find a solution to this impasse. If successful, it would certainly be her chef-d’œuvre before stepping down in 2021; her legacy for the next decade of European integration.