European Union leaders gathered Friday to begin what German Chancellor Angela Merkel expected to be “very, very difficult negotiations” about how to pay for an unprecedented $2.1 trillion EU budget and COVID-19 pandemic recovery fund.As she arrived at a Brussels summit, Merkel acknowledged the member nations still were far apart and would not make any predictions about how things would go. She said, “We are going into the discussions with a great deal of vigor, but I must say that the differences are still very, very big and so I can’t predict whether we will achieve a result this time.”European Union leaders during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, July 17, 2020.Germany holds the rotating six-month EU presidency and Merkel’s stature will be even greater at the summit. She is celebrating her 66th birthday on Friday.The 27-member EU bloc is suffering through the worst recession in its history and member states are fighting over who should pay the most to help other countries and which nations should get the most to turn around their battered economies.The urgency is such that the leaders have ended a string of coronavirus-enforced videoconference summits and are meeting in person for the first time since the pandemic began its sweep around the globe.As she arrived at the summit, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said “the stakes couldn’t be higher” for the EU but was slightly more optimistic than Merkel. She said “If we do it right, we can overcome this crisis stronger and emerge stronger from the crisis. All the necessary pieces are on the table and a solution is possible. And the solution that is what our people in Europe expect from us.”At the core of the debate, is how to fund the plan. A coalition of northern countries is reluctant to hand out aid without commitments for reforms and plans for repayment.  The usual summit venue, an intimate room high up in the urn-shaped Europa center, was deemed too snug to be safe and instead the leaders have been sent to the 850-square-meter EBS-5 meeting room, which normally seats 330 people.

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