Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa has described the EU’s Coronavirus recovery plan as a “vitamin” to aid Europe's economic revival.
Speaking in the European Parliament on Friday, Costa told reporters, “At last, we have a vaccine to save lives and now we have a vitamin to boost economic recovery.”
He was in Brussels for the formal signature of the EU's Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF).
The EU has been roundly condemned for the slow rollout of its vaccine programme with most Member States way behind other countries like Israel, the UK and US on delivery.
But the bloc has sought to put a positive spin on what many see as a strategy failure by emphasising the potential benefits of the RRF.
Even here, though, the EU accepts that no funding will be made available until each Member State has formally ratified the fund – and that could take until the summer.
On Friday, Costa joined European Parliament President David Sassoli and his Commission counterpart Ursula von der Leyen at a press conference to explain how the measures will support Europe's social and economic recovery.
“We are fighting for health and jobs and this is the most innovative plan to face what is the most challenging crisis we have ever had. I hope it will help us build a fair, green and digital future, but now is the time to deliver” Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa
Costa, whose country holds the rotating EU Council presidency, said, “We now need to accelerate the vaccination programme and put the recovery plan in motion.”
“We are fighting for health and jobs and this is the most innovative plan to face what is the most challenging crisis we have ever had. I hope it will help us build a fair, green and digital future, but now is the time to deliver.”
“The depth of the crisis calls for urgent action and we want the plans approved because we cannot waste to more time or fail our citizens.”
Von der Leyen, who has been personally criticised for the EU’s slow vaccine rollout, said, “I want to congratulate Council and Parliament on ratification of this plan. We are fighting this crisis with vaccines, which are our ally and our hope, but we should not forget the economic crisis.”
“On this our ally and hope is the Next Generation EU recovery package. This is needed to help citizens keep their jobs, save businesses and preserve the social fabric.”
She added, “This is an opportunity for Member States to work together on our priorities but this is about more than money: it sends out a strong message of trust in the EU. No Member State on its own would have been able to master this crisis so I call on Member States to ratify this plan as fast as possible so that we can disperse funds by middle of the year.”
European Parliament President David Sassoli also told the briefing, “Antonio Costa’s presence here today is very important as he wanted to be here personally to sign the agreement. The recovery has to be a European one that includes everyone. Now it is up to Member States to ratify this plan.”
Sassoli added, “We cannot wait, we must his must speed things up because people and businesses cannot wait, hence my appeal to Member States to accelerate what needs to be done.”
Governments will now be able to apply for the fund’s grants and loans to help boost their recoveries, he noted.
“This is an opportunity for Member States to work together on our priorities but this is about more than money: it sends out a strong message of trust in the EU. No Member State on its own would have been able to master this crisis so I call on Member States to ratify this plan as fast as possible so that we can disperse funds by middle of the year” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
Adopted by Parliament on Wednesday, the RRF is the biggest so-called “building block” of the Next Generation EU recovery package. It comprises €672.5bn in grants and loans - €312.5bn in grants and €360bn in loans - and will support EU policy areas such as the green and digital transitions.
The €672.5 billion facility is the largest ever EU programme and, for the first time, will be serviced by common EU debt. The priorities of the RRF are: Green transformation, digital transformation, resilience, economic cohesion, social and territorial cohesion, institutional resilience, and policies for the next generation, children and youth.
Speaking separately, Romanian Socialist MEP Siegfried Mureşan - co-lead negotiator on the fund for the Parliament - said, “It is now the responsibility of Member States to swiftly present their final national recovery and resilience plans. The plans have to be future-oriented and must strengthen our economies.”
“We do not want the fund to be used simply to fill in holes in national budgets. The fund is for investments, not for political populism.”
He warned, “Parliament will scrutinise all the national recovery and resilience plans and will make sure that plans fulfil the conditions of the law. If we see shortcomings, we will not hesitate to ask for improvements. We owe it to EU citizens to make good use of this unique opportunity.”
Another S&D MEP, Cypriot member Costas Mavrides, negotiator on the file on behalf of the economic and monetary affairs committee, said, “We are already experiencing the second wave of the pandemic. Workers, households, businesses, vulnerable groups, women, children, education, culture and so many more sectors and groups have been affected and need support. “
“The RRF enables member states to raise significant funding for reforms and investments in a wide range of policy areas.”
“Member states should now proceed immediately with submitting their national plans, tailor-made on their specific needs and targeted to tackle the social and economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
“Antonio Costa’s presence here today is very important as he wanted to be here personally to sign the agreement. The recovery has to be a European one that includes everyone. Now it is up to Member States to ratify this plan” European Parliament President David Sassoli
The Parliament’s Greens/EFA group said it welcomed the allocation of at least 40 percent of the total national ‘envelopes’ to biodiversity and climate, as well as at least 20 percent on digital spending.
Damian Boeselager, Greens/EFA group negotiator on the RRF in the Parliament’s budgets Committee, noted, "The RRF is a game changer and an unprecedented sign of EU solidarity. For the first time ever, funds are raised collectively at the European level and directed to member states based on the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis.”
Further comment comes from former UK Labour MP Roger Casale, of New Europeans, who told this site, "It is indeed both remarkable and historic that the EU has been able to double its budget. This time last year EU leaders were caught up in intense fighting over whether the new annual budget should be €1.074 trillion or €1.16 trillion. Now the budget is over €2.2 trillion - times have changed.
He added, "What is important now is that citizens have a say over how this money is spent. In particular, Member State governments should consult civil society organisations as well as trade unions and industry bodies about the use of the recovery funds.”
“Let's also remember that there is a pan-European dimension to all of this. Some of the recovery budget is funded by Eurobonds. So where are the pan-European mechanisms for giving citizens a voice in monitoring use of these funds?
"The delayed Conference on the Future of Europe would be an excellent place to start with addressing the new democratic deficit that is emerging about the use of the recovery funds and the new EU budget.”
Meanwhile, a new European Parliament survey says the COVID-19 pandemic has strengthened citizens’ beliefs that the EU “is the right place to develop effective solutions to tackle its effects.”
At the end of 2020, more respondents saw things on the right path at EU level in comparison with their own country. Nearly three out of four respondents believe the Recovery Plan would allow their country’s economy to bounce back more rapidly from the negative effects of the Coronavirus pandemic.
The survey, conducted between November and December, found an increase of ten percent in the number of citizens who expressed a positive view of the EU (50 percent) compared to autumn 2019. Some 66 percent of respondents in the survey said they were optimistic about the EU’s future.
Even so, the individual outlook remains pessimistic in the face of the continuing pandemic: 53 percent of respondents said they believed that the economic situation in their country will be worse in one year’s time than it is now.
Only one in five respondents believed that their national economic situation would improve over the coming year. More than half of respondents expected their individual living conditions in one year’s time to be the same as today. One quarter of respondents believed they will even be worse off in one year’s time, while 21 percent thought that they would be better off.
Sassoli said: “The message of this survey is clear: European citizens support the EU and they find that the EU is the right place to seek solutions to the crisis. But reform of the EU is clearly something citizens want to see and that is why we need to launch the Conference on the Future of Europe as soon as possible.”