So much money, so little time to find deal at EU summit

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A bottle of hand sanitizer stands next to an EU flag at the entrance to the European Council building in Brussels, Thursday, July 16, 2020. On Friday, July 17, 2020, leaders from the 27 European Union nations will meet face-to-face to try to carve up a potential package of 1.85 trillion euros among themselves. Due to coronavirus concerns, Friday's summit will be held in a larger-than-usual meeting room to meet social distancing requirements, the media will be kept to a minimum and there will be no group photo of the leaders. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

BRUSSELS – As European Union leaders start pouring in early for a two-day summit starting Friday, all realize that rarely so much has been on the line.

The 27-nation bloc is battered by the coronavirus pandemic, much of its economy in need of a massive aid injection and its countries riven by disputes ranging from the respect for basic democratic principles to the need for tough controls on spending.

“The crisis brought about by this pandemic, with all of its economic and social consequences, is the most severe we have had to face since the Second World War," European Council President and summit host Charles Michel said Thursday.

To make sure their nations bounce back, the 27 leaders will be assessing an overall budget and recovery package spread over seven years estimated at around 1.75 trillion to 1.85 trillion euros.

“Does 1.75 trillion euros ($2 trillion) seem like a lot of money to you? Believe me, it does to the European heads of state or government too," Michel said.

It has certainly been enough to end a rut of five remote videoconference summits that yielded little to bring sides closer together and forced everyone to come in person to the urn-shaped Europa summit center for at least two days of summiteering.

On the eve of Friday's opening, French President Emmanuel Macron will already be huddling with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to find the best way to help nations most affected by the crisis. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency and is seen as holding the key to a successful outcome, already had video conference talks with Michel.

“An agreement is not guaranteed — to the contrary," said an EU official involved in the talks. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were ongoing. “There are still important differences."