Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (L) and Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban have accused the EU of mounting a power grab

Brussels (AFP) - European leaders will confront Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki on Thursday over their veto of the EU coronavirus recovery plan, as the bloc faces a new crisis threatening joint efforts to fight the epidemic.

The EU’s 27 heads of state and government had planned to discuss lessons learned during the pandemic and to coordinate a strategy to prevent a third wave of infections in the first months of 2021.

They are also expected to take the temperature of post-Brexit trade talks, with time fast running out to strike a deal with Britain before it leaves the single market on January 1.

The video summit was for a time seen as an unofficial deadline for those talks, but the negotiations look set to stretch to next week with the announcement on Thursday that a negotiator had tested positive to Covid-19, forcing senior negotiators into isolation.

Warsaw and Budapest, with the support of Slovenia, scuppered all other plans when they blocked the adoption of the EU’s combined 1.8-trillion-euro ($2.1 trillion) post-virus recovery plan and long-term budget.

The nationalist governments are furious at their EU partners for the all but certain decision that ties the disbursement of bloc funds to respect for Brussels’ view on the rule of law and European values.

The videoconference, due to begin at 6.00 pm (1700 GMT), will now be dominated by efforts to talk them down – or work around them. “It will be the elephant in the room,” one senior European diplomat said.

The plan to tie EU funds to the rule of law, strongly defended by the European Parliament and mainly northern member states, has the votes to be approved by a qualified majority of members.

But Hungary and Poland are venting their fury by using their veto against allowing the EU to raise funds to finance its 750-billion-euro recovery plan and against the trillion-euro 2021-2027 budget. Both require unanimity.

The roadblock has caused alarm among European policy-makers, with Europe sinking into a second recession in less than year with the second wave of the virus putting much of the continent back into some form of lockdown.

Morawiecki said a “European oligarchy” was trying to bully weaker EU members, while his Hungarian counterpart Orban called the plan blackmail against member states opposed to immigration.

Poland is already under an EU investigative procedure over its efforts to trim the independence of the judiciary, as is Hungary for an erosion of democratic norms, such as press freedom, under Orban’s rule.

- ‘Drama and darkness’ -

Ahead of the talks, Morawiecki’s veto won the backing of Polish parliament, which called on EU governments to return to the negotiating table and find an agreement that respects the sovereign “rights” of member states.

The rest of the bloc had hoped that the matter had been settled in July after a four-day and night summit hammered out an apparent budget compromise that was later modified in discussions with the European Parliament.

“Blocking the adoption of a decision on the recovery plan negatively affects the whole EU, including the citizens of Hungary and Poland,” Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban – no relation to Viktor Orban – told AFP.

Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency until the end of the year, has been working behind the scenes to defuse the row, and some diplomats think Orban and Morawiecki could be persuaded to accept guarantees of fair treatment.

But both France and the Netherlands have invoked the possibility, seen as implausible by many, of by-passing the log-jam by pushing ahead with an intergovernmental recovery plan, without the holdouts.

“We will look at whether it is necessary as a last resort to move forward without the countries that are blocking,” said French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune.

In Brussels, a senior European source warned this would be premature and technically complex but confirmed it was “on the table”.

There is exasperation in Brussels that some governments receiving large net contributions from Europe spend so much time and political capital opposing the EU.

“When you see the positions of Poland and Hungary on migration, climate, the rule of law, the budget, there are a lot of issues where they have difficulties,” one diplomat said.

“Let’s ask them what they want from this union.”

No breakthrough was expected in the three-hour meeting on Thursday.

“The lack of physical contact is a disadvantage” that prohibits decisive sideline meetings, a European source said.

“The meeting will exacerbate frustrations and anxieties. We must expect a few days of drama and darkness.”