Presidents and prime ministers from the EU 27 convene for their first face-to-face summit today and tomorrow since the coronavirus crisis began. The session is the first major test of the new leadership in Brussels to get big political deals over the line, yet is also a legacy-building moment for German Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular.
This is because Germany assumed the six-month presidency of the EU on July 1, in what is the twilight of Merkel's long period in power. She views the half-year between now and Christmas as one of the last big moments for her to cap off what has been a remarkable era in office.
And she particularly wants to secure a European recovery fund to respond to the coronavirus crisis, a new EU long-term budget for the 2020s, and a post-Brexit UK-EU trade deal.
There is a huge amount at stake in these agendas for Ireland and the North. As Brexit trade talks move to their 'end game' for instance, with the transition period scheduled to end in December, a stalemate outcome that fails to achieve a trade agreement breakthrough will have huge political implications for Northern Ireland and the future territorial integrity of the United Kingdom.
In this scenario while England, Scotland and Wales would face EU tariffs and other trade barriers Northern Ireland would not as the UK's withdrawal deal guarantees frictionless trade with the Republic - and by extension with the rest of the EU 27. This will by implication mean significant trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
On the coronavirus recovery package, Taoiseach Micheál Martin will press at the summit for the Republic of Ireland to receive a larger slice of the anticipated €750bn funding package. He will argue that the scale of the challenge that Ireland now faces in the post-pandemic period to come necessitates this, as Paschal Donohoe has also asserted to his fellow EU finance ministers already.
All these issues will require political dexterity from Merkel, who has long been the most important national leader in continental Europe.
Merkel has not just a substantial track record of domestic political achievement but also in EU affairs too. Her influence has been critical in helping the continent navigate the tumult of the last decade-and-a-half from the eurozone economic crisis to the migration challenges more recently.
It is in this context that the EU is now at a potential further 'hinge-point' in its history. Merkel, along with new European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel, will be pivotal in trying to help the Brussels-based club turn the coronavirus corner. The first leg starts today in trying to get to a breakthrough on the new EU long-term budget and the proposed European recovery fund.
In recent days, Merkel has already started to try to lay the groundwork for success, engaging with French President Emmanuel Macron by video last Friday, meeting Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Monday and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Tuesday. While big obstacles still remain, principally between the wealthier north of Europe (including Netherlands, Sweden and Finland) and the higher-debt south (including Italy and Spain) hit hardest by the pandemic, a deal has been made more likely in recent days by a concession from Michel for a proposed smaller EU budget for 2021-27 than previously envisaged.
What has been pledged is a long-term EU budget of around €1trn, plus the recovery fund of €750bn for pandemic-hammered economies with two-thirds of the latter to be in the form of grants and a third issued as loans. This new proposal has been welcomed by the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland but more work will be needed to get a deal this weekend.
These more fiscally conservative nations are pushing for an even lower overall level of funding in the long-term budget deal and a higher ratio of loans to grants in the recovery fund. Moreover there will be a push for enshrining economic reforms as conditions for accessing the funds, something some southern states want to avoid.
Another dimension of dispute concerns Eastern European states such as Hungary, given Michel's warning that future funding should be conditional on respect for the rule of law. This has already been slammed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who said he could veto the proposals if money comes with such strings attached.
That there is nonetheless a window of opportunity this week to get a breakthrough reflects not just the economic stresses that coronavirus has brought to the continent but also Brexit, given that the United Kingdom would have been sceptical of this federalist agenda. With London, however, no longer a member of the club, its voice is no longer relevant.
While the proposed post-Brexit trade deal is not a large component of this week's summit agenda it will be a topic of discussion. This potential agreement is another key goal of the German presidency of the EU, and Merkel is keen to secure this week an EU long-term budgetary deal, and coronavirus recovery agreement if possible so she can then devote more of her energies to helping secure the broadest possible UK-EU trade deal.
Merkel will argue that ongoing Brexit talks serve as a warning to the EU 27 that it is vital for the continent to come together again in the face of its worst economic shock for decades.
Success (or failure) will affect not just the recovery, but also social solidarity given that support for Brussels in some southern nations has fallen, given the lack of EU support at the beginning of the crisis, underlining the need to regain public trust in states such as Italy and Spain again, not just to rejuvenate growth.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics