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Europe's week: Green deal vs coronavirus recovery

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A woman walks in from of a mural painting of a nurse, in Milan, Italy, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020.
A woman walks in from of a mural painting of a nurse, in Milan, Italy, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020.   -   Copyright  Luca Bruno/AP
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The surging second wave of the Coronavirus in Europe has reached new heights, with Ireland and the Czech Republic this week becoming the first countries to impose a second lockdown.

Streets in central Dublin and Prague were eerily quiet, as stores, bars and restaurants were closed.

While there has long been talk of the lasting effects the pandemic will have on the economy, the crisis has also claimed one political victim of note - climate policy.

Green deal vs pandemic

This week was EU Green Week and activists around Europe feared that with the world's focus on the health crisis, good intentions on climate action risked falling by the wayside.

European officials were quick to reassure the public that the climate goals still stand.

"I think now there is a heightened sense of emergency, the fact that during this pandemic ... we say that none of the money spent on the recovery should go against our climate goals," Frans Timmermans, European Commission Vice-President told Euronews.

Yet, many climate activists are not convinced, especially the younger generation who don't buy the argument that the EU's climate policy is revolutionary.

"For me, meeting Angela Merkel was pretty disappointing because she's a physicist and I thought science would be her priority," Anuna de Wever, a young, Belgian climate activist told Euronews.

"She told us that by being in politics so long she had learned to compromise. And it was clear, I mean European policies are not revolutionary but she thought they were," said de Wever.

Coronavirus recovery funds

What could be revolutionary for some is the sheer size of the anti-Coronavirus firepower.

The EU summit agreed in July agreed 750 billion euros just for the economic recovery.

This money is supposed to be paid from January, which is less than ten weeks away, and urgently awaited by many countries in economic distress.

But the package, including the next EU budget, needs to be ratified by the European Parliament and the national parliaments and some countries and many lawmakers want to tie the EU funds to respect of the rule of law.

At the July summit, a compromise was written in deliberately ambiguous terms to have all 27 governments on board.

This week the Council and the European Parliament were continuing their negotiations about the details and procedures of this mechanism.

But there is resistance from countries like Poland and Hungary – which could put the entire recovery package at risk.

Rule of law row

In the midst of the pandemic and its jarring economic impact, Europe is at an impasse with the recovery plan because of the so-called rule of law conditionality.

There is a stalemate between the European Parliament, which wants to see a strong rule of law regulation linked to access to EU cash, and the European Council, which favours a broader interpretation.

"I think there will have to be concessions from both parts, concessions from the Parliament and the Council," said Eulalia Rubio, a senior researcher at the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris.

"Both of them will have to avoid principled positions and try to find a compromise."

Poland and Hungary have threatened to block the passage of the next budget and thus the recovery package.

Rubio says these threats should be treated with caution, but not taken too seriously as the countries are beneficiaries on the multiannual financial framework (MFF) and the recovery instrument, so "it's not in their own interests to suspend everything."

"If they block the activation, the approval of the recovery instrument, they are going to lose money," she explained. "And in the end, the rule of law mechanism could be approved anyway, so they might end up with the scenario in which they have less money and the rule of law mechanism in place."

The rule of law problem is not new, yet the EU has been unable to take countries like Poland and Hungary to task, but why?

"We have tools (to act). Sometimes the problem has been the lacking political will to act in response to these violations, flagrant violations on rule of law. Likely this (the recovery plan) will be an additional instrument, but will not be the magic bullet to end all the problems," said Rubio.