Having arrived on Thursday, French President Emmanual Macron took the lead with early negotiations where he used the pre-summit house to meet with Dutch Prime Minister (PM) Mark Rutte.
The Dutch PM is considered one of the bloc’s biggest obstacles in reaching a deal at the two-day meeting due to his position as a stringent budget hardliner.
"I am not optimistic, but you never know. Nobody wants another meeting," said Rutte.
Macron underscored the importance of the challenge.
"The coming hours will be absolutely decisive," he said. "It is our project Europe that is at stake," stated Macron.
What is slated as a two-day summit could go even longer, if necessary, to bridge the differences between leaders.
"We want a result and we will continue working until we get that result," if need be until Sunday, said Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Karins upon arrival.
No early breakthroughs in pre-summit talks were reported.
"The crisis brought about by this pandemic, with all of its economic and social consequences, is the most severe we have had to face since the Second World War," European Council President and summit host Charles Michel said late Thursday.
The urgency is such that the leaders have ended a string of coronavirus-enforced videoconference summits and are meeting in person for the first time since the pandemic began its devastating sweep around the globe.
The usual summit venue, an intimate room high up in the urn-shaped Europa center, was deemed too snug to be safe, and instead, the leaders have been sent down to meeting room EBS-5, whose 850 square meters (9,150 square feet) normally fits 330 people.