EU agrees on $2.1 trillion deal after marathon summit

EU agrees on $2.1 trillion deal after marathon summit

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French President Emmanuel Macron, second left, speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, Monday, July 20, 2020. Weary European Union leaders are expressing cautious optimism that a deal is in … more >

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By Raf Casert and Samuel Petrequin

Associated Press

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) — After four days and nights of wrangling, exhausted European Union leaders finally clinched a deal on an unprecedented 1.8 trillion-euro ($2.1 trillion) budget and coronavirus recovery fund early Tuesday, after one of their longest summits ever.

The 27 leaders grudgingly committed to a costly, massive aid package for those hit hardest by COVID-19, which has already killed 135,000 people within the bloc alone.

With masks and hygienic gel everywhere at the summit, the leaders were constantly reminded of the potent medical and economic threat the virus poses.

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“Extraordinary events, and this is the pandemic that has reached us all, also require extraordinary new methods,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

To confront the biggest recession in its history, the EU will establish a 750 billion-euro coronavirus fund, partly based on common borrowing, to be sent as loans and grants to the hardest-hit countries. That is in addition to the agreement on the seven-year, 1 trillion-euro EU budget that leaders had been haggling over for months even before the pandemic.

“The consequences will be historic,” French President Emmanuel Macron said. “We have created a possibility of taking up loans together, of setting up a recovery fund in the spirit of solidarity,” a sense of sharing debt that would have been unthinkable not so long ago.

Merkel added: “We have laid the financial foundations for the EU for the next seven years and came up with a response to this arguably biggest crisis of the European Union.”

Despite Macron and Merkel negotiating as the closest of partners, the traditionally powerful Franco-German alliance struggled for days to get the quarreling nations in line. But, even walking out of a negotiating session in protest together over the weekend, the two leaders bided their time and played their cards right in the end.

“When Germany and France stand together, they can’t do everything. But if they don’t stand together, nothing is possible,” said Macron, challenging anyone in the world who criticized the days of infighting to think of a comparable joint endeavor.

“There are 27 of us around the table and we managed to come up with a joint budget. What other political area in the world is capable of that? None other,” Macron said.

At first, Merkel and Macron wanted the grants to total 500 billion euros, but the so-called “frugals” – five wealthy northern nations led by the Netherlands – wanted a cut in such spending and strict economic reform conditions imposed. The figure was brought down to 390 billion euros, while the five nations also got guarantees on reforms.

“There is no such thing as perfection, but we have managed to make progress,” Macron said.

The summit, at the urn-shaped Europa center, laid bare how nations’ narrow self-interests trumped the obvious common good for all to stand together and face a common adversary.

Rarely had a summit been as ill-tempered as this one, and it was the longest since a five-day summit in Nice, France, in 2000, when safeguarding national interests in institutional reforms was a stumbling block.

“There were extremely tense moments,” Macron said.

Still, considering every EU leader had the right of veto on the whole package, the joint commitment to invest and spend such funds was hailed as a success.

Adriaan Schout, an EU expert and Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael think tank in the Netherlands, said that the unusually acrimonious and drawn-out talks ultimately produced a typical Brussels deal.

“The EU hasn’t changed. This is always what it’s about – finding compromises – and the EU always finds compromises,” he said. “And the compromise has been hard fought. There are checks and balances in it. We don’t know how they will work.”

The days and nights of brutal summiteering will surely have left many wounds between member states, but as history has proven, the EU has an uncanny gift to quickly produce scar tissue and move on.

“We all can take a hit,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. “After all, there are presidents among us.”

Despite bruising confrontations with Merkel, Macron and his Italian counterpart, Giuseppe Conte, Rutte maintained that “we have very good, warm relations.”

Conte also didn’t have time to dwell on grudges. With 35,000 Italians dead from COVID-19 and facing EU estimates his economy will plunge 11.2% this year, he had to think ahead, of things big and small – from getting cash to businesses still trying to get a foothold after the lockdown to getting school desks.

In order to open in September, his country needs up to 3 million new desks, to replace old-fashioned double and triple desks so students can keep a proper distance.

”We will have a great responsibility. With 209 billion euros, we have the possibility to relaunch Italy with strength, to change the face of the country. Now we must hurry. We must use this money for investments, for structural reforms,” Conte said.

Even if Tuesday’s agreement was a giant leap forward, the European Parliament, which has called the moves of the member states too timid considering the challenge, still has to approve the deal.

Rutte and others also wanted a link to be made between the handout of EU funds and the rule of law – a connection aimed at Poland and Hungary, countries with right-wing populist governments that many in the EU think are sliding away from democratic rule.

In its conclusion, the European Council underlined the “importance of the respect of the rule of law” and said it will create a system of conditionality aimed at preventing member states from getting subsidies from the budget and recovery fund if they don’t abide by its principles.

But Tuesday was a moment to revel in the achievement itself. What was planned as a two-day summit scheduled to end Saturday was forced into two extra days by deep ideological differences among the 27 leaders.

The compromise deal they finally hammered out was one that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban claimed as a victory.

“We not just managed to get a good package of money, but we defended the pride of our nations and made clear that it is not acceptable that anybody, especially those who inherited … the rule of law criticize us, the freedom fighters that did a lot against the communist regime in favor of rule of law,” he said.

___

Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands; Colleen Barry in Soave, Italy; and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, contributed.

Insults, slammed fists: EU virus summit goes into 4th day

Insults, slammed fists: EU virus summit goes into 4th day

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French President Emmanuel Macron, center, leaves the European Council building in the early morning during an EU summit in Brussels, Monday, July 20, 2020. Leaders from 27 European Union nations met throughout the night Sunday to assess an overall budget … more >

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By Raf Casert and Mike Corder

Associated Press

Monday, July 20, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) — Weary and bleary, European Union leaders were gearing up Monday for a fourth day of fighting over an unprecedented 1.85 trillion-euro ($2.1 trillion) EU budget and coronavirus recovery fund, barely recovered from a weekend of walkouts, fists slamming into tables and insults.

With a brilliant sun warming the negotiating sundeck at the Europa summit center early Monday, there finally was a glimmer of hope that the talks to help the continent emerge from the pandemic through an unprecedented economic aid package are not doomed after all.

“It looks more hopeful than when I thought during the night: ‘It’s over,’” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the target of much of the criticism. The meeting — one of the longest-running ever in the bloc’s history — broke up temporarily and is due to resume on Monday afternoon.

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“All want a solution instead of shelving the problem,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said. Alluding to the infighting, he added, “It also shows: massive efforts are needed to make Europe strong again together. The corona pandemic shocked all of us.”

It took a heart-tugging dinner speech by EU Council President Charles Michel about leaders not failing their union, French President Emmanuel Macron slamming his fist in anger into the table, and a new set of budgetary numbers to send this epic summit onward.

It was planned as a two-day summit scheduled to have ended Saturday, but there are deep ideological differences between the 27 leaders forced the talks into two extra days.

Rutte, defending the cause of a group of five wealthy northern nations – the Netherlands, Austria, Finland, Sweden and Denmark – sought to limit costs and impose strict reform guarantees. He came under criticism from Macron, Italy and Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban asked why the Dutchman had such “hate” toward him.

Rutte took it in stride.

“We are not here because we are going to be visitors at each other’s birthday party later. We are here because we do business for our own country. We are all pros,” he said.

On Sunday night, after three days of fruitless talks and with hope dimming, Michel implored leaders to overcome their fundamental divisions and agree on the budget and recovery fund.

“Are the 27 EU leaders capable of building European unity and trust or, because of a deep rift, will we present ourselves as a weak Europe, undermined by distrust,” he asked the leaders. The text of the behind-closed-doors speech was obtained by The Associated Press.

“I wish that we succeed in getting a deal and that the European media can headline tomorrow that the EU succeeded in a Mission Impossible,” Michel said.

The pandemic has sent the EU into a tailspin, killing around 135,000 of its citizens and plunging its economy into an estimated contraction of 8.3% this year.

The bloc’s executive has proposed a 750 billion-euro coronavirus fund, partly based on common borrowing, to be sent as loans and grants to the countries hit hardest by the pandemic. That comes on top of the seven-year 1 trillion-euro EU budget that leaders had been haggling over for months even before the pandemic hit.

Even with Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel negotiating as the closest of partners, the traditionally powerful Franco-German alliance could not get the quarreling nations in line.

At their dinner table Sunday night, the leaders mulled a proposal from the five wealthy northern nations that suggested a coronavirus recovery fund with 350 billion euros of grants and the same amount again in loans. The five EU nations – nicknamed “the frugals” – had long opposed any grants at all, while the EU executive had proposed 500 billion euros.

“We are ready to take the leap from loans to subsidies,” Rutte said.

All nations agree they need to band together but the five richer countries in the north, led by the Netherlands, want strict controls on spending, while struggling southern nations like Spain and Italy say those conditions should be kept to a minimum.

Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya said negotiations are at a “delicate moment” but that Spain still expects that an agreement that will set new foundations for the bloc will be achieved. Speaking to Cadena SER radio in an interview Monday, she said that Spain is open to a plan that comes with strings attached.

“We do not reject conditionality and we do not reject that there is good governance that offers trust,” she said. “What we do want is for that to have a framework, a framework that offers trust, clarity and transparency, which is the basis of a family’s relationship, same as the relationship within the European Union.”

Rutte has long been known as a European bridge builder, but this weekend his tough negotiating stance was being blamed for holding up a deal. He and his allies have been pushing for labor market and pension reforms to be linked to EU handouts and a “brake” enabling EU nations to monitor and, if necessary, halt projects that are being paid for by the recovery fund.

“He can’t ask us to do specific reforms,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said, complaining Rutte may look like a hero in his home nation, but nowhere else.

Rutte also wants a link to be made between the handout of EU funds and the rule of law – a connection aimed at Poland and Hungary, countries with right-wing populist governments that many in the EU think are sliding away from democratic rule.

That drew Orban’s anger.

“I don’t know what is the personal reason for the Dutch prime minister to hate me or Hungary, but he’s attacking so harshly and making very clear that because Hungary, in his opinion, does not respect the rule of law, (it) must be punished financially,” Orban said.

____

Corder reported from The Hague, Netherlands. Samuel Petrequin and Aritz Parra contributed from Brussels, Madrid.

Poland wants generous EU budget for Central Europe

Poland wants generous EU budget for Central Europe

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By MONIKA SCISLOWSKA

Associated Press

Friday, July 3, 2020

WARSAW, Poland (AP) – Polish President Andrzej Duda said Friday that the European Union’s budget for the next seven years should be generous for Central European nations, which aim to help drive the economic recovery from the coronavirus recession.

Duda spoke to open a summit of prime ministers of the Visegrad Group, a regional cooperation alliance that also includes the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Poland is taking over the group’s rotating 12-month presidency from the Czech Republic.

“We want our region to be one of the poles of development in Europe after the pandemic. We have great ambitions but also great development needs,” Duda said.

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“For that reason, we want an ambitious European budget that will be focused on development, on European cohesion and on big structural investments that will fuel European economy in our region,” he said.

Duda urged the government leaders to agree on a joint strategy for the ongoing 2021-2027 budget negotiations among the 27 members of the European Union. Some member nations want the budget reduced for Poland and Hungary,arguing that government policies in the two countries violate EU principles of the rule of law and democracy.

“I want the budget negotiations to be closed as soon as possible, with the desirable results,” Duda said.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said later that he trusts the negotiations during a July 17-18 EU summit in Brussels will be successful, but he stressed that he views the existing proposals as “very far” from the “wise financial compromise that we need.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki described the proposals on the table as “not bad and interesting.”

Also attending the Warsaw meeting were Slovakian Prime Minister Igor Matovic and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed for a quick agreement on a recovery fund aimed at pulling the EU out of the coronavirus recession. Speaking to the upper house of parliament she said that “every day counts.”

Germany this week took over the rotating EU presidency for six months, giving it a key role in trying to reach a deal on the recovery fund.

Hungary worries virus could spur more migration to Europe

Hungary worries virus could spur more migration to Europe

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Associated Press

Friday, June 26, 2020

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) – The Hungarian government is “very concerned” that the coronavirus pandemic will trigger more waves of migrants trying to reach Europe from poorer nations where the disease will have a greater impact, the country’s foreign minister said Friday.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said European Union leaders are obligated to help citizens who lost jobs due to the pandemic by stemming “labor-oriented migration” that is “definitely against the interests” of Europe.

Szijjarto said he thinks the EU’s migration policies must be scrapped because they “can be understood as an invitation for those who consider coming to Europe illegally.”

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“We reject all attempts for legalizing illegal migration,” he said after talks with the foreign minister of Cyprus. “We consider migration as a dangerous phenomenon, from a security perspective. There’s a cultural risk, and now there is a health care risk as well.”

Szijjarto said the EU must wage a strong battle against human traffickers and take action against non-governmental organizations that in his view “basically cooperate with these trafficking organizations.”

Hungary will take a “very tough position” in upcoming EU discussions on the migration, the minister said.

The foreign minister of Cyprus, Nikos Christodoulides, said the east Mediterranean island nation faces its own migration challenges. Cyprus ranked first among EU member countries for three consecutive years in number of first-time asylum applications relative to population.

Asylum applications filed in Cyprus increased 76% last year compared to 2018, Christodoulides said.

On WWI treaty’s centenary, Hungary says its ‘curse’ must go

On WWI treaty’s centenary, Hungary says its ‘curse’ must go

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Lawmakers attend the commemorative parliamentary session marking the centenary of the Trianon Peace Treaty in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, June 4, 2020. Hungary is commemorating the 100th anniversary of a post-World War I peace treaty which led to the loss of … more >

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By PABLO GORONDI

Associated Press

Thursday, June 4, 2020

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) – Hungary’s president on Thursday stressed the need for mutual respect between Hungary and neighboring countries where some 2 million ethnic Hungarians live following a post-World War I peace treaty signed exactly 100 years ago.

At the same time, Janos Ader spoke of Hungarians’ “right” to keep unaltered their “spiritual borders,” despite the changes on the real map, and stressed the need to “rectify” the damage from the treaty.

Hungary was on the losing side in the war and was stripped of over two-thirds of its territory, populated by some 3.3 million ethnic Hungarians, after the June 4, 1920, Treaty of Trianon – signed in the Grand Trianon Palace in Versailles, France.

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The fate of the ethnic Hungarian minorities in countries like Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine was a taboo issue during the roughly four decades of Hungary’s communist regime that ended in 1990, when it regained attention. Since his return to power in 2010, right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban has prioritized support and advocacy for the roughly 2 million ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries, and for the rest of the Hungarian diaspora around the world.

“No one can dispute our right to work, given that the nation’s geographical borders have changed, for the nation’s spiritual borders to remain unchanged,” Ader said during a special parliamentary session.

In separate speeches, Ader and parliament speaker Laszlo Kover also talked about the 100-year-old grievances felt by Hungarians because of Trianon, especially the perceived anti-Hungarian bias during negotiations leading to the treaty and the disproportionately large number of Hungarians who suddenly found themselves as minorities in other countries.

Hungary, then a kingdom in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was one of the Central Powers led by Germany which lost the 1914-1918 war to an alliance led by Britain and France, and joined later by the United States.

“We respect our neighbors but we ask them to also respect us and the Hungarians living in their countries,” Ader said. “We have to work for each other, not against each other.”

“We have to rectify what the (WWI victors) damaged,” he added. “If we do so, the curse of Trianon will be removed from us.”

At the same time, Ader said Hungarians “will not be partners in suppression, in falsifying history, in the denial of Hungarians living outside the motherland.”

Long-standing disputes about the Hungarian minorities’ rights,mostly regarding education and the use of their mother tongue, have flared up in recent years, especially with Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine.

“On the other hand, we will be partners in candid talk, in taking advantage of the historical opportunities, in strengthening ties between Hungarians and Hungarians and between Hungarians and those of other nationalities,” Ader said.

Thanks to legal changes promoted by Orban’s government, since 2011 some 1.1 million ethnic Hungarians, mostly living in neighboring countries, have received Hungarian citizenship, including the right to vote in Hungary’s national elections.

In the 2018 parliamentary election, over 95% of the votes from neighboring countries were for Orban’s Fidesz party.

In Budapest, public transport will halt for one minute Thursday afternoon to mark the Trianon anniversary.

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses the media during an international press conference in the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. (Szilard Koszticsak/MTI via AP) more >

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By Victor Morton

The Washington Times

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Hungary passed a law Tuesday that prevents people from changing the sex on their birth certificates.

In a 134-56 vote, the Parliament voted to define gender on state identity documents as the “sex at birth” on the registered birth certificate.

Transgender groups cried foul and claimed the law pushed the country back by a thousand years by preventing people from receiving official support for changing their gender identity.

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“This decision pushes Hungary back towards the dark ages and tramples the rights of transgender and intersex people. It will not only expose them to further discrimination but will also deepen an already intolerant and hostile environment faced by the LGBTI community,” Amnesty International researcher Krisztina Tamas-Saroy said in a statement.

Hungarian government officials denied that the law is in any way discriminatory or prevents people from expressing whatever gender identity they may wish to present.

In an emailed statement to CNN, the government of right-populist Viktor Orban noted that the law “does not affect men’s and women’s right to freely experience and exercise their identities as they wish.”

“In no way does the relevant section of the bill that some people criticize prevent any person from exercising their fundamental rights arising from their human dignity or from living according their identity, just as the state cannot normatively instruct anybody what to think,” the statement said.

The right-populist government of Mr. Orban, who often has been compared with President Trump, has been criticized by liberal activists and European Union officials for its path in rejecting, and even acting contrary to, their prescriptions on such matters as immigration, national sovereignty and religious freedom.

Amnesty International and other trans-rights groups asked that the Hungarian Constitutional Court review the law.

“It is critical for Hungary’s Commissioner for Fundamental Rights to act urgently and request that the Constitutional Court review and swiftly annuls the appalling provisions of this law,” Ms. Tamas-Saroy wrote.

China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ wins support in Eastern Europe

China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ wins support in Eastern Europe

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In this handout photo provided by the Turkish Defense Ministry, Serbian officials unload Personal Protection Equipment donated by Turkey to help the country combat the new coronavirus outbreak, in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. The new coronavirus causes mild … more >

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By DUSAN STOJANOVIC

Associated Press

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) – When China’s first shipment of coronavirus medical aid landed in Belgrade, the president of Serbia was there to kiss the Chinese flag. In Hungary, officials have played down assistance from the European Union and praised Beijing’s help. In the Czech Republic, its president says that only China was there during the virus spread.

While elsewhere China tries to polish an image tarnished by its initial handling of the coronavirus outbreak, Beijing has no problem maintaining its hard-won influence in parts of Eastern Europe, where it battles for clout with the EU as well as with Russia.

China was criticized in the West for its early mishandling of the crisis due to politically motivated foot-dragging while the virus raced through a province and its capital, Wuhan. Now it is seeking to change perceptions through “mask diplomacy” – a mix of soft power policy, political messaging and aid shipments – to portray Beijing as a generous and efficient ally.

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China for years has been increasing its political and economic influence in southeastern Europe through its Belt and Road global investment projects. Its image-polishing after the outbreak found fertile ground in places like Serbia and Hungary, whose populist leaders nurture close ties with Beijing or Moscow.

The aid shipments also drew praise in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, although some virus test kits and face masks bought from Chinese companies didn’t meet local standards.

“We must be aware there is a geopolitical component, including a struggle for influence, through spinning and the politics of generosity,” EU’s top foreign policy official Josep Borrell recently wrote in a blog, referring to China. “Armed with facts, we need to defend Europe against its detractors.”

Chinese officials have repeatedly rejected claims that Beijing seeks political gains by giving the aid, saying the allegations result from deep-rooted misperceptions of China’s goals in the West.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing is doing what it can “to help those countries and people affected … to save and safeguard people’s lives and health to the greatest extent across the world.”

In Serbia, a candidate for EU membership, officials and state-controlled media have played down the millions of euros in grants and loans from Brussels while praising Chinese deliveries, donations and sales of supplies. Opposition groups have demanded the Chinese aid be disclosed and stacked up against the EU’s apparently much larger assistance, but those calls have been ignored.

The pro-China narrative included billboards supporting Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic routinely describes as his “brother,” as well as suggestions that a monument be erected to honor Belgrade’s friendship with Beijing.

“European solidarity does not exist. Only China can help,” Vucic said last month while announcing a nationwide state of emergency that gave him expanded powers in the health crisis.

The EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, has pledged 15 million euros in immediate support for Serbia’s health sector, plus 78.4 million euros for its social and economic recovery. The EU also has given 2 million euros to help pay for shipping more than 280 tons of emergency medical supplies that Serbia bought.

Responding to criticism from some European officials that he praised China while ignoring the EU aid, Vucic insisted in a state TV interview last week that the bloc was not willing to sell or provide breathing machines to cope with the medical crisis.

Vucic thanked the EU for the money, but insisted China gave more, without providing details.

On Tuesday, Vucic’s office said he had a phone conversation with the Chinese leader during which he praised Beijing for “the brotherly care for the citizens of Serbia.”

“When the first plane landed at Belgrade airport on March 21 with the great Chinese help in medical equipment and material, accompanied by Chinese experts, the Serbs were awakened with the new optimism as they knew that in this fight they will not be alone,” the statement said.

Serbia and Hungary have been important gateways to Europe for China through its infrastructure and investment projects.

China’s investments in Serbia include an estimated $6 billion in loans for highways, railroads and power plants as well as contracts for a 5-G network and facial recognition surveillance equipment. U.S. officials warned of Beijing’s “debt trap” diplomacy that could cost them their sovereignty if they fail to service the loans.

Government officials in Hungary repeatedly praised China and other Asian countries, thanking them for supplying masks, breathing machines and other needed equipment. At the same time, Prime Minister Viktor Orban and other ministers have played down EU assistance and have belittled those critical of the extraordinary powers given to Hungary’s leadership during the state of emergency amid the pandemic.

“All of Europe, including western Europe, is always extraordinarily critical and often ready to educate and lecture about the essence of democracy, (but) everyone is standing in line in China for the products needed for health protection,” Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said last week in Parliament. “So, it’s possible that after the end of the coronavirus, European policies regarding Eastern relations may have to be slightly reassessed.”

On Tuesday, a cargo plane with 80 tons of protective gear bought from China landed in Warsaw. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki greeted the flight, which followed a donation to Poland from China of masks and equipment last month.

CHOICE, a group of experts monitoring Beijing’s presence in southeastern Europe, warned in a report this month that “China has been increasingly active in political, economic and societal domains” in the region.

Czech President Milos Zeman, known for his pro-Russian and pro-Chinese views, said in a speech March 19 that “China was the only country that helped us have the (protective) gear delivered.”

China expert Martin Hala countered by criticizing what he called a “huge propaganda campaign that accompanies the so-called aid” from Beijing. He told Czech public TV it was“a normal commercial delivery,” not aid.

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Associated Press writers Jovana Gec in Belgrade; Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary; Vanessa Gera in Warsaw; Karel Janicek in Prague; Ken Moritsugu in Beijing; and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed.

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