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Von der Leyen calls for unity to get Europe back on its feet

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The EU’s chief executive today (16 September) painted a sober picture of Europe grappling with a pandemic and its deepest recession in its history, but laid out ambitious goals to make the 27-nation bloc more resilient and united to confront future crises, write Foo Yun Chee and Robin Emmott. 

In her annual State of the Union address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen doubled down on the flagship goals she set out on taking office last December: urgent action to tackle climate change and a digital revolution. She unveiled a plan to cut the European Union’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% from 1990 levels by 2030, up from an existing target of 40%, and pledged to use green bonds to finance its climate goals.

“There is no more urgent need for acceleration than when it comes to the future of our fragile planet,” the former German cabinet minister told the European Parliament. “While much of the world’s activity froze during lockdowns and shutdowns, the planet continued to get dangerously hotter.”

Von der Leyen also called for greater investment in technology for Europe to compete more keenly with China and the United States, and said the EU would invest 20% of a €750 billion economic recovery fund in digital projects.

Officials said that, far from backing off the plans she laid out at the beginning of her term because of the coronavirus crisis, von der Leyen believes they will be key to Europe’s long-term economic and political survival. The EU has been buffeted for years by crises, from the financial meltdown of 2008 to feuds over migration and the protracted saga of Britain’s exit from the bloc.

Solidarity among the 27 member states frayed badly at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when countries refused to share protective medical kit with those worst-affected and closed borders without consultation to prevent the spread of the virus. The bloc’s leaders also jousted for months over a joint plan to rescue their coronavirus-throttled economies.

But in July they agreed on a stimulus plan that paved the way for the European Commission to raise billions of euro on capital markets on behalf of them all, an unprecedented act of solidarity in almost seven decades of European integration.

Von der Leyen told the EU assembly that “this is the moment for Europe” to trust each other and stand together. “The moment for Europe to lead the way from this fragility towards a new vitality,” she said. “I say this because in the last months we have rediscovered the value of what we hold in common ... We turned fear and division between Member States into confidence in our Union.”

Turning to the troubled talks with London on the future relationship between the world’s fifth-largest economy and biggest trading bloc, von der Leyen said every passing day reduces chances for sealing a new trade deal. She stressed that both the EU and Britain negotiated and ratified their Brexit divorce deal and warned the UK, which has proposed a bill that would breach elements of the pact, that it “cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied”.

“This is a matter of law, trust and good faith... Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership,” she said. She said EU states must be quicker in their foreign policy to support pro-democracy protests in Belarus or to stand up to Russia and Turkey. “Why are even simple statements on EU values delayed, watered down or held hostage for other motives?” she asked. “When member states say Europe is too slow, I say to them be courageous and finally move to qualified majority voting,” she said, referring to blockages over finding unanimity among the EU’s 27 states.

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Shake off your ill will, Britain tells EU over post-Brexit trade

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The European Union should shake off its ill will and build a good relationship with Britain as sovereign equals, Britain’s top EU adviser David Frost (pictured, left) said on Sunday (7 March), promising to stand up for the country’s interests, writes Elizabeth Piper.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Frost again defended Britain’s unilateral move to smooth post-Brexit trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, over which the EU has promised to launch legal action for breaching the terms of the Brexit deal.

Since Britain left the EU last year, relations between the two have soured, with both sides accusing the other of acting in bad faith in relation to part of their trade agreement that covers goods movements to Northern Ireland.

Frost, who led Britain’s negotiations to secure a trade deal with the bloc, was appointed as a minister and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s main point man for future ties with the EU earlier this year and looks set to take a firmer approach.

“I hope they will shake off any remaining ill will towards us for leaving, and instead build a friendly relationship, between sovereign equals,” he wrote in an opinion piece.

“That is what I will be working towards, acting constructively when we can, standing up for our interests when we must – as a sovereign country in full control of our own destiny.”

He again defended the British government’s extension of a grace period for checks on some food products imported by retailers to Northern Ireland as being “lawful and consistent with the progressive and good faith implementation” of part of the post-Brexit trade deal called the Northern Ireland protocol.

But he added: “Without this threat of disruption, we can continue our discussions with the EU to resolve difficulties arising from the protocol constructively – and we aim to do so.”

Northern Ireland’s future was bitterly contested during the Brexit negotiations. London ultimately agreed to leave the British-ruled province aligned to the EU’s single market for goods to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, fearing it could be detrimental to the 1998 peace agreement that ended decades of conflict in the province.

This has required checks on some items arriving in Northern Ireland from elsewhere in the United Kingdom, which some businesses say has made it difficult to bring in supplies. To address that issue, the British government extended the grace period for some checks until 1 October.

The EU disputes that the grace period extension was in line with the agreement, saying London should honour what it signed up to. It has promised to launch legal action, or a so-called “infringement procedure” against Britain.

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Fishing firms could go bust over Brexit, MPs told

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British fishing businesses could go bust or move to Europe because of post-Brexit trading disruption, industry figures have warned, writes the BBC.

MPs were told paperwork due to new border controls had proved a "massive problem" and should be moved online.

They also heard extra costs had made it "impossible" for some firms to trade profitably.

Ministers have promised action on disruption, and £23 million for affected firms.

The UK government has also set up a taskforce aiming to resolve problems faced by the industry in Scotland.

The Commons environment committee heard funding could have to continue, and be widened further, to help the sector weather Brexit-related problems.

Outside the EU's single market, British fish exports to Europe are now subject to new customs and veterinary checks which have caused problems at the border.

Martyn Youell, a manager at south-west England fishing company Waterdance, told MPs the industry was facing more than just "teething problems".

"Whilst some things have settled down, some obvious issues, we feel that we remain with at least 80% of the trading difficulties that have been encountered," he said.

"There are some extreme forces operating on the supply chain, and we probably will see some forced consolidation or business failure."

"The exporters we deal with are seriously considering relocating part of their processing business to the EU because of the difficulties we face".

He said the "largely paper-based" forms they now have to fill in had pushed up costs, and called for the UK to work with the EU in moving them online.

'Lot of anger'

Donna Fordyce, chief executive of Seafood Scotland, said the problems could lead to smaller firms in particular stopping trading with Europe in the medium term.

She said the annual costs of the new paperwork, between £250,000 and £500,000 per year, were too much for them to sustain.

But she said many "can't see where they could turn" at the moment because travel bans and the Covid pandemic have closed off other markets.

She added there was "a lot of anger" about the design of the government's £23m compensation scheme, which links funds to provable losses due to Brexit.

She said it meant many firms which had "worked through the night" to get shipments ready had not been compensated for extra costs.

Shellfish ban

Sarah Horsfall, co-chief executive at the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, also criticised the scheme, noting firms that "made massive efforts" didn't qualify.

She also called for ministers to adopt a different approach to persuade the EU to overturn a ban on British exports of some types of live shellfish.

After leaving the EU single market, these exports from all but the highest-grade fishing grounds have to be purified before they can enter the EU market.

The UK government has accused the EU of reneging on a previous commitment such exports could continue with a special certificate.

Ms Horsfall said there had been the "propensity for a bit of a misunderstanding" among either UK or EU officials about the post-Brexit rules.

She urged a "more nuanced approach" from UK ministers in resolving the matter, noting their "bullish" response "perhaps hasn't helped either".

And she said a more "flexible" regime for determining the quality of British fishing waters could provide help to the industry in the long-term.

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EU auditors highlight risks of Brexit Adjustment Reserve

EU Reporter Correspondent

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In an opinion published today (1 March), the European Court of Auditors (ECA) raises some concerns over the recent proposal for a Brexit Adjustment Reserve (BAR). This €5 billion fund is a solidarity tool which is intended to support those member states, regions and sectors worst affected by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. According to the auditors, while the proposal provides flexibility for member states, the design of the reserve creates a number of uncertainties and risks.

The European Commission proposes that 80% of the fund (€4bn) should be granted to member states in the form of pre-financing following the BAR’s adoption. Member states would be allocated their share of pre-financing on the basis of the estimated impact on their economies, taking into account two factors: trade with the UK and fish caught in the UK exclusive economic zone. Applying this allocation method, Ireland would become the main beneficiary of prefinancing, with nearly a quarter (€991 million) of the envelope, followed by the Netherlands (€714m), Germany (€429m), France (€396m) and Belgium (€305m).

“The BAR is an important funding initiative which aims to help mitigate the negative impact of Brexit on the EU member states’ economies,” said Tony Murphy, the member of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the opinion. “We consider that the flexibility provided by the BAR should not create uncertainty for member states.”

Opinion No 1/2021 concerning the proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing the Brexit Adjustment Reserve

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