Central Europe edges toward backing EU recovery plan but want more from pot

LEDNICE, Czech Republic (Reuters) - Central Europe’s four-nation Visegrad Group on Thursday edged towards backing an EU plan to fund recovery from the coronavirus but said it should not favour larger, richer states or hurt smaller ones that managed the outbreak well.

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The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia met on Thursday to hash out a joint position as tough talks between the European Union’s 27 member states over a 750-billion-euro recovery plan comprising loans and grants begin.

The Visegrad quartet have reported far fewer cases of the COVID-19 respiratory disease than larger, wealthier western neighbours but face a harsh recession this year because shutdowns to contain the contagion hammered their economies.

Under recovery plans at the forefront of the next seven-year EU budget, major western member states Italy and Spain - which have suffered the highest coronavirus tolls in the EU - would receive the most money.

Poland would get the third highest amount, which has made it an early supporter. The Czech Republic and Hungary have been more sceptical as they would receive less than Germany, which recorded far fewer deaths than other western EU peers but boasts the largest, most advanced economy in the bloc.

The Visegrad allies narrowed differences after meeting at a Czech chateau in Lednice, where the Czechs and Hungarians muted opposition to the plan and its size while soliciting support for their demands to get more.

“Poorer countries should not bear the cost for richer ones,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Budapest was opposed to large borrowing - at the core of the EU recovery plan - but would get on board if funding is distributed more favourably.

“Our attitude to that the proposal is positive...Desperate times call for desperate measures. Philosophical convictions with respect to the economy must be put aside in such times,” Orban said.

The Visegrad four agreed that one source of money could be complex budget rebates received by several rich EU nations, saying they were no longer justified after Britain exited the bloc early this year.

Reporting by Jan Lopatka with additonal reporting by Marton Dunai in Budapest and Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw; Writing by Jason Hovet; Editing by Mark Heinrich