It’s hard to look back to remember what the world was like just five months ago. A strange sensation emerges when comparing that recent past with the reality imposed by the coronavirus. This is what the EU’s Heads of State and Government must have felt on Friday when they returned to Brussels after five months. They met again at the same place where they said goodbye on February 21, after unsuccessfully negotiating a multi-year budget for the EU for more than 30 hours. But everything was very different this time.
The warm handshakes, kisses and hugs were the great absentees. In its place, the Europa Building became the closest thing to a bunker battleship with the sole objective of not leaving any open space through which the dreaded coronavirus could sneak in. The arrival of the leaders was arranged so that they did not coincide at the entrance. There, one by one, they made their statements, without questions from the press, and at all times respecting the safety distance recommended by the health authorities.
The room chosen for the summit was also not the same. The intimate venue where the meetings were held was replaced by the so-called EBS-5, a spacious 850-square-meter space located on the fifth floor. With capacity for a maximum of 330 people, it is the venue for meetings with international organizations and many invited countries. There, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, was in charge of receiving the leaders, who until now had only carried out joint negotiations by videoconference.
The timid greetings were made to wait until all the Heads of State and Government of the Twenty-seven were able to gather in the room, just before taking their seats. Then there were clashes of elbows, hands to the chest and inclinations to the Japanese like the one starring the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who was immortalized before the cameras.
For the first time, in more than half a century of EU history, the facemask was the main protagonist of a summit. Even so, during the meeting and due to the arrangement of the seats, they could withdraw it, as well as at times when social distance was guaranteed. Hydroalcoholic gels were the other ubiquitous element, as was the purified air filtered from the outside.
The coldest lap that is remembered contrasted with the agitation of the leaders for being before “the summit of truth”, as the French president, Emmanuel Macron, baptized it, upon arrival. And it is that not only do they carry the challenge of agreeing on the 2021-2027 budgets, but they returned with an even heavier backpack: saving the EU economy from its greatest collapse since World War II with an ambitious recovery fund against the Covid-19 pandemic.