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THEM and US, or should it be WE?

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Asia MarketOpinion by Jim Gibbons

Two Council of Europe projects to encourage migrant integration end at a Brussels conference in June after 18 months of operation. Jim Gibbons has been assessing their impact.

In Italy, some 64,000 firms are run by Moroccans, almost 20% of them immigrants. In Sweden, one in five people working in the hair and beauty sector was born abroad. And in the UK, there are almost half a million migrant entrepreneurs running active companies, some running more than one. Across most of Europe, migrants are far more likely to start businesses than the locals. And what’s more, they are likely to be younger than their non-migrant counterparts. Those figures come from recent Italian, Swedish and UK government reports. There are many more with a similar tale to tell.

Even so, it’s often harder for migrant-owned businesses to break into the mainstream marketplace. Although there are many examples of thriving, expanding, migrant-owned businesses, for many a lack of contacts, a failure to reach out to the native population and even a lack of language skills can get in the way. Research in Ireland by the Dublin Institute of Technology shows that 65% of migrant-owned businesses there have a turnover of less than €50,000.

“What’s happening is that they’re primarily targeting their own communities and they’re doing this in the poorer areas and there just isn’t the market there that’s big enough,” said Professor Tom Cooney, Academic Director at Dublin’s Institute for Minority Entrepreneurship, where encouragement and mentoring is provided for migrants who want to set up their own businesses. Professor Cooney mentioned a Polish shop near his home, where he had tried to show support, only to find all the notices and labels in Polish and an unhelpful shop assistant who seemed to speak little or no English. It’s the sort of business he doesn’t expect to grow.

At this point, enter the Council of Europe. Partly funded by the EU’s Integration Fund, the Council’s Diversity in the Economy and Local Integration project, known as DELI, is trying to help migrant businesses thrive, through working with local authorities in ten cities, as well as NGOs, educational establishments, business organisations and local media. It’s based on the policy of Diversity Advantage, which holds that the more diverse the origins of those involved, the more diverse the ideas and experiences they bring, resulting in better products and better policies. The Dublin project is part of it. Being from an ethnic minority need not be a disadvantage.

“For any entrepreneur, we all start out being nobodies,” said Professor Raomal Perera, Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at INSEAD, the global business school based at Fontainebleau in France, “so the challenge is ‘how do you become a somebody?’ and you become that somebody through connections, and connections create a perception that you’re somebody.” It’s a point Professor Perera tries to drive home whenever he meets with groups of mixed ethnicity who’d like to get a foot on the business ladder; that, and the certainty that the colour of a person’s skin should not be a drawback. “One of the things I soon realised is that if you’re in a minority you actually get noticed, so the more events you go to, interestingly enough, your colour can be an advantage,” he said. DELI arranges such events.

Dublin is one of the cities involved in the DELI project and boasts a number of thriving enterprises to demonstrate the value of migrant entrepreneurship, from a Polish-owned snail farm in County Carlow, exporting edible snails to Continental Europe, to a chain of popular coffee shops, owned by a Ukrainian. Ruslan Mocharskyy has taken on the big-name franchises and won, his Art of Coffee proving a hit with Dubliners, some of whom make a detour just to take a coffee or eat a pastry there. The internationally popular comedian Brendan O'Carroll, better known as Mrs. Brown, regularly makes the trip out from central Dublin when his production commitments permit because he enjoys the coffee and the atmosphere. For Mr. Mocharskyy, it comes down to determination.

I would say just go ahead and do it, and do it correctly,” he enthused over a double espresso. “Do it honestly as well, because I think Ireland is a country where you don’t need to be dishonest.” Four branches and a kiosk already and with plans for further expansion, he’s living proof that it can work. “If you do everything correctly and properly, everything will come back to you and you will be successful.”

Migrants often need help to overcome the legal and fiscal obstacles, but a great many manage it and seem keen to do so; a Saturday seminar in the city attracted a sizeable and racially mixed crowd of would-be entrepreneurs. Afterwards, attendees mingled with the lecturers who had addressed them and with established business people, there to offer advice; people like Amaka Okonkwo, who runs the Irish on-line news letter eDundalk. She tells them that networking and making contacts is the most important thing to do. “A migrant, moving to another country…must get to know the people,” she said, “get to know the environment, get a network and get the basic information that will help you.” A healthy dose of ambition also helps. “Your own community alone will not sustain your business. You need to expand and get other communities involved in your business.” Even Dublin’s Mandarin Chinese language newspaper, the Sun Emerald, now runs four pages in English, “Because we want more Irish people, more ‘other countries’ people, interested in Chinese culture,” explained the group’s CEO, who goes by the single name of Sunnie.

That’s what Eva Pau has done with the Asia Market supermarket. Not only does she sell food to meet far eastern tastes (including fresh fish), she also gives popular weekly talks to explain what the various products are, how they differ from one another according to their country of origin and how they can be used. The sessions are well-attended, thorough and entertaining, offering occasional samples, covering the differences between Chinese, Japanese, Korean and regional food types. She has recently opened a small restaurant, adapting the Peking duck of her native Hong Kong to suit an Irish clientele who prefer their food bone-free. The trick is not just to seek to attract people of your own ethnicity, she explains. “You can bring something from your own country to Dublin, but then you can alter it to local tastes, which is what we do here.”

That could serve as a leitmotiv for migrant entrepreneurship generally. Another city involved in the DELI project is Munich, where the local authority even created a prize for successful migrant businesses. Kameran Shwani, of Munich’s Department of Labour and Economic Development Programme, is in charge of the DELI Migrant Enterprises initiative there. “Munich is international,” he explained, “People from more than one hundred and eighty nations live in Munich. These numbers are reflected in business formations. We know that these businesses accomplish a lot for Munich society and the City of Munich has decided to make successful companies, which do not yet have high visibility, noticeable through the Phoenix Prize.”

The prize of €3,000 is divided among three winners each year. They are chosen by a jury for their contribution to Munich’s economy and to wider society, as well as for the provision of apprenticeships and training. One such winner was the printing company, Konfix, based in Ascheim on the outskirts of Munich and run by Tran Thuy Lan Nguyen-To, a very dynamic and determined lady of Vietnamese origin whose distinctive dress style has earned her the local nickname of “the lady in red”. Her expanding company prints books, catalogues and brochures for a wide variety of local and national clients, including German car manufacturers. She admitted she felt honoured by the official recognition of her hard work. “Through the Phoenix Prize ,” she said, “we showed our business partners what we can do and in this way we gained more clients.”

Migrants already face hostility and opposition that is increasingly exploited by populist politicians and their cheerleaders in the media. One of the biggest problems is the range of preconceptions and urban myths they face from the indigenous population: “they all live on benefits”, “they steal jobs”, “they lower educational standards” or even that they’re dirty or likely to be terrorists. That way they risk becoming scapegoats for society’s ills, especially in a time of recession when everyone is feeling the pinch. That is what lies behind another cities-based project run by the Council of Europe and part funded by the European Union. It’s called Communication for Integration, or C4i, and its aim is to rebut rumours about migrants.

“There are a considerable number of people who are scared of immigrants and foreigners,” Konstantinos Peletidis, the Mayor of Patras, told me, and he’s right. The first Communist to be elected to that position, Mr. Peletidis’s administration is strongly committed to the project. “Our participation in the C4i project is related to our perception that an immigrant is not a problem,” he explained. Patras, Greece’s third largest city, has suffered badly through the recession and the austerity that has followed. It has no motorway link to anywhere and the train from Athens takes longer than the bus, which makes the journey in around three hours. Patras has a different migrant problem from some other places; many of the migrants who turn up see it as a transit point, with the aim of using its port to reach Italy and eventually Northern Europe. But many stay, unable to find a way to go further. The problem is exacerbated in Patras Prison, where inmates from a variety of different countries have little choice but to get along as best they can. Prison warden Anta Remoundi admits that overcrowding makes it worse. “There are problems of co-habitation, because within a cell built for two or three people, there may be eight to ten people sleeping,” she explained, “There is a common toilet; this does not help to create bearable, humane living conditions.” Because living in forced proximity isn’t easy, C4i runs workshops in the prison, encouraging prisoners to think differently about people of different ethnicity through role-playing activities. With Ms. Remoundi as one of the instructors, they are formed into groups and given, for instance, a list of different nationalities and attributes from which they must decide which to exclude, explaining why. When I was there, one of the groups finally decided, after much sometimes heated discussion that it would be wrong to exclude anyone, so they declined to do so. It was a minor triumph.

The prisoners themselves seemed to enjoy the experience. “Of course, it helped a lot,” said Nasi Zeni. “We all grasped the deeper meaning and it is amazing for us in the school in the prison. It is the best thing we’ve had done for us in this prison.” It also reassured the prisoners that out of sight doesn’t necessarily mean out of mind. “It is proof that there are people who are interested in us,” said Nikos Kostopounos, another inmate, “and that we are not forgotten and ‘thrown to Kaiades,’ to the river, as we say.”

Meanwhile, at one of Patras’s two universities, future teachers learn how to cope with racial rumours. Their lecturer, Professor Eugenia Arvanitis, admits they will face such rumours all the time in their everyday lives. “We have to test our beliefs and we have to test our misbeliefs,” she said, “our false ideas about ‘the other’ who is different, a stranger to us.” She puts her students through role-playing exercises, with one playing the anti-immigration native, the other trying to counter their views. The rest of the class laugh, but they know there’s nothing funny about anti-immigration rhetoric and its corrosive effect on society. For Greece, there is the added burden of the EU’s so-called Dublin Two agreement, under which illegal immigrants are returned to the EU member state through which they entered. And a lot of undocumented migrants come in through Greece, so they end up being sent back there if they are caught entering another country. There is a growing feeling that it is not working. “Containing people is not so good, it is not in our civilisation from ancient times,” said Giorgios Kakarelidis, a lecturer in the at the Technological Educational Institute of Western Greece. “We always welcomed strangers. Containing them is something Europe has to address.”

The Stockholm suburb of Botkyrka has one of the highest concentrations of first and second generation immigrants in Sweden. Nearly half the population has at least one parent born in another country. It is a relatively poor area and integrating the newcomers into the community is not easy. “What we have is a very severe degree of segregation,” Says Petter Beckman, editor-in-chief of the local newspaper, Södra Sidan, “where for instance, in a municipality like Botkyrka you have one of the most serious cases of social and ethnic segregation.” The notion that the migrants are merely after a share of Sweden’s generous social benefits is especially prevalent, and not only among native-born Swedes. “You find it very strongly also among immigrants who came twenty or thirty years ago,” says Mr. Beckman. “They have a lot of complaints about the newcomers who come here too easily and just, yes, take advantage of the welfare system.”

Petter Beckman’s paper tries to correct the misconceptions but is also actively involved in the C4i project, arranging meetings where all sides can air their views and at which, it’s hoped, false beliefs will be put to rest. “If you sit around a table, people with various thoughts and beliefs about these difficult issues, people let out what they have in their hearts,” Mr. Beckman explains, “and maybe they start arguing or contradicting each other or holding each other responsible for what they’re saying, then things often sort of get the drama and level of conflict and things away and people just feel happy about finally getting to talk about it and then they end up shaking hands afterwards, even if they stand on different sides.” It’s a level of optimism that is clearly much needed in Botkyrka, with its empty, windswept concrete shopping areas and marching ranks of 1960s high rise social housing. You can find similar soulless products of 1960s civic design all over northern Europe. Petter Beckman’s view is shared by Emanuel Ksiazkiewicz, who chairs the local authority’s Democracy Committee. “I think everything can be solved by actually talking to each other, meeting each other and by knowledge,” he said.

Where immigration is concerned, knowledge seems to be in short supply. And just in case the general population might begin to grasp it more fully, there are plenty of politicians prepared to play the race card, even blaming migrants for overcrowded roads. In Barcelona, the word “migrant” has been largely replaced by the word “neighbour” in official documents. The various ethnic groups seem to mingle together quite openly, although some in Catalonia seek a separate existence from Spain. Even at the city’s impressive St. George’s Day celebration, with the streets filled with stalls and individuals selling books and roses – a Catalan tradition – there were stalls carrying slogans in English demanding independence from Spain. An elderly man wearing the Catalan nationalist flag like a cloak was walking about playing the Catalan anthem on a battered trumpet and handing out separatist leaflets to passers-by. The victory of Franco’s Nationalists in 1939 is still a bone of very current political contention for some here and a source of dispute with Madrid. Similar hankering after independent statehood can be found in other parts of Europe, of course, such as Scotland.

But Catalan separatism apart, the main source of anti-immigrant thought is ignorance, and that is something the C4i project has been seeking to address. According to Cris Velásquez, Co-ordinator of Barcelona’s anti-rumour strategy, it has worked. “The main benefit is that dialogue becomes possible,” she told me. “If you presume that a person who propagates rumours is racist, dialogue is difficult so we avoid making people feel guilty and simply try to understand what lies behind it.”

As in Stockholm, C4i has set out to bring together people of different ethnicities so that they can interact and stop feeling that someone different is therefore alien. “Anti-rumour work has facilitated the idea that inter-culturality becomes, little by little, more familiar,” said Ms. Velásquez, “something that would not have happened spontaneously.” At a local high school, I witnessed a mixed-race class of teenagers being taught how to write and perform anti-racist rap music. Many of those involved see the greatest hope in Europe’s young people. One of the NGOs involved in the Barcelona Project is the Community Development Plan of the Sagrada Família district, situated around Gaudi’s memorable but still unfinished church. “We are working for this ‘living together’ among different groups to really take place,” says Co-ordinator Yolanda Soriano, “But we are working because it is a long process which requires a change of mind set, a change in how we understand ‘living together’, and this cannot be changed in four years.”

It’s not just a case of preventing prejudice against immigrants but of overcoming it among all peoples of different racial origin. Newcomers are just as likely to have preconceived negative thoughts about other groups of immigrants or against the native-born population as locals may have about them. Countering it is difficult. “Rumours and stereotypes have the capacity to reduce reality to very small ideas, like an advertising slogan,” said Rafa Besoli, a Barcelona journalist who’s involved in the Inter-culturality project. “Rumours have this power. In order to fight them, we explain that rumours do not set us free, they do not give us any further information about reality, but they actually tell you what to think.” At present, given the rise of populist and anti-immigrant political parties in Europe, it would seem as if the rumour-mongers are winning, making the success of C4i and DELI more important than ever, if arguably more difficult. “We need to be aware, all of us in the whole city,” said Miquel Esteve, Barcelona’s Political Commissioner for Immigration & Interculturality, “that the ‘different one’, the one who is not like us, is not a person to be stigmatised and is not a person who makes trouble. On the contrary, difference provides wealth; not trouble, but wealth.”

The evidence from the DELI project is that this is indisputably true. The data from most European countries shows that a disproportionately large number of migrants have entrepreneurial ambitions and are choosing to exercise them. They bring new ideas and methods, skills and experiences. In some cases they find they have little choice but to create their own businesses: they face difficulties in entering the labour market with some employers being reluctant to take on staff who, they fear, may not mix well with existing workers. And it’s true that those who fail to fit in, who cannot adjust socially or who find the language too difficult often drift from job to job before giving up and going home. But a large number do succeed in business, as DELI has shown; with the right support and appropriate encouragement they can deliver wealth, certainly, but also new products, new services, training opportunities and jobs.

Four years since their inception, DELI and C4i still work to deliver on their plans to encourage migrant business and to help overcome prejudice among and against all groups of migrants. Many of those coming to Europe today are leaving behind hardship, a lack of opportunities, even persecution and war. What they offer is a willingness to work, often in jobs the indigenous population don’t wish to do, skills honed in a foreign land, new ideas and – perhaps surprisingly – an urge to create new companies in their host countries. These are the facts being ignored by political leaders perhaps over-sensitive to popular opinion about migrants and to the tens of thousands who seek to cross the Mediterranean, far too many dying in the attempt. As the Mayor of Patras Konstantinos Peletidis put it: “They come here supposedly to find conditions allowing them to live, but they meet obstacles, they can’t move; it’s a march to death for them. This, though, is not humane. It is something that has to change. This means that we have to find the way, on a global and a European level, to provide them with what we want for ourselves. They are not something different.”

The conference takes place on 23-24 June at the Committee of the Regions, Rue Belliard 99-101, 1040 Brussels.

Belgium

Cars and pavements washed away as Belgian town hit by worst floods in decades

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The southern Belgian town of Dinant was hit by the heaviest floods in decades on Saturday (24 July) after a two-hour thunderstorm turned streets into torrential streams that washed away cars and pavements but did not kill anyone, writes Jan Strupczewski, Reuters.

Dinant was spared the deadly floods 10 days ago that killed 37 people in southeast Belgium and many more in Germany, but the violence of Saturday's storm surprised many.

"I have been living in Dinant for 57 years, and I've never seen anything like that," Richard Fournaux, the former mayor of the town on the Meuse river and birthplace of the 19th century inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax, said on social media.

A woman works to recover her belongings following heavy rainfall in Dinant, Belgium July 25, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron
A woman walks in an area affected by heavy rainfall in Dinant, Belgium July 25, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

Rainwater gushing down steep streets swept away dozens of cars, piling them in a heap at a crossing, and washed away cobbles stones, pavements and whole sections of tarmac as inhabitants watched in horror from windows.

There was no precise estimate of the damage, with town authorities predicting only that it would be "significant", according to Belgian RTL TV.

The storm wreaked similar havoc, also with no loss of life, in the small town of Anhee a few kilometres north of Dinant.

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Czech Republic

NextGenerationEU: European Commission endorses Czechia's €7 billion recovery and resilience plan

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The European Commission has today (19 July) adopted a positive assessment of Czechia's recovery and resilience plan. This is an important step towards the EU disbursing €7 billion in grants under the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF). This financing will support the implementation of the crucial investment and reform measures outlined in Czechia's recovery and resilience plan. It will play a key role in helping Czechia emerge stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The RRF is at the heart of NextGenerationEU which will provide €800bn (in current prices) to support investments and reforms across the EU. The Czech plan forms part of an unprecedented co-ordinated EU response to the COVID-19 crisis, to address common European challenges by embracing the green and digital transitions, to strengthen economic and social resilience and the cohesion of the Single Market.

The Commission assessed Czechia's plan based on the criteria set out in the RRF Regulation. The Commission's analysis considered, in particular, whether the investments and reforms set out in Czechia's plan support the green and digital transitions; contribute to effectively addressing challenges identified in the European Semester; and strengthen its growth potential, job creation and economic and social resilience.

Securing Czechia's green and digital transition  

The Commission's assessment of Czechia's plan finds that it devotes 42% of its total allocation to measures that support climate objectives. The plan includes investments in renewable energy, the modernisation of district heating distribution networks, the replacement of coal-fired boilers and improving the energy efficiency of residential and public buildings. The plan also includes measures for nature protection and water management as well as investment in sustainable mobility.

The Commission's assessment of Czechia's plan finds that it devotes 22% of its total allocation to measures that support the digital transition. The plan provides for investments in digital infrastructure, the digitalization of public administration, including the areas of health, justice and the administration of construction permits. It promotes the digitalisation of businesses and digital projects in the cultural and creative sectors. The plan also includes measures to improve digital skills at all levels, as part of the education system and through dedicated upskilling and reskilling programmes.

Reinforcing Czechia's economic and social resilience

The Commission considers that Czechia's plan effectively addresses all or a significant subset of the economic and social challenges outlined in the country-specific recommendations addressed to Czechia by the Council in the European Semester in 2019 and in 2020.

The plan provides for measures to tackle the need for investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, sustainable transport and digital infrastructure. Several measures aim at addressing the need to foster digital skills, improve the quality and inclusiveness of education, and to increase the availability of childcare facilities. The plan also provides for improving the business environment, mainly through extensive e-government measures, a reform of the procedures of granting construction permits and anti-corruption measures. Challenges in the area of R&D shall be improved by investment geared at strengthening public-private cooperation and financial and non-financial support to innovative firms.

The plan represents a comprehensive and adequately balanced response to Czechia's economic and social situation, thereby contributing appropriately to all six pillars referred to in the RRF Regulation.

Supporting flagship investments and reform projects

The Czech plan proposes projects in all seven European flagship areas. These are specific investment projects which address issues that are common to all member states in areas that create jobs and growth and are needed for the twin transition. For instance, Czechia has proposed €1.4bn to support the energy efficiency renovation of buildings and €500 million to boost digital skills through education and investments in upskilling and reskilling programmes for the entire labour force.  

The Commission's assessment finds that no measure included in the plan does any significant harm to the environment, in line with the requirements laid out in the RRF Regulation.

The arrangements proposed in the recovery and resilience plan in relation to control systems are adequate to prevent, detect and correct corruption, fraud and conflicts of interests relating to the use of funds. The arrangements are also expected to effectively avoid double funding under that Regulation and other Union programmes. These control systems are complemented by additional audit and control measures contained in the Commission's proposal for a Council Implementing Decision as milestones. These milestones must be fulfilled before Czechia presents its first payment request to the Commission.

President Ursula von der Leyen said: “Today, the European Commission has decided to give its green light to Czechia's recovery and resilience plan. This plan will play a crucial role in supporting a shift towards a greener and more digital future for Czechia. Measures that improve energy efficiency, digitalize public administration and deter the misuse of public funds are exactly in line with the objectives of NextGenerationEU. I also welcome the strong emphasis the plan places on strengthening the resilience of Czechia's health-care system to prepare it for future challenges. We will stand with you every step of the way to ensure that the plan is fully implemented.

Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said: “Czechia's recovery and resilience plan will provide a strong boost to the country's efforts to get back its feet after the economic shock caused the pandemic. The €7bn in NextGenerationEU funds that will flow to Czechia over the next five years will support a wide-ranging programme of reforms and investments to build a more sustainable and competitive economy. They include very sizeable investments in building renovation, clean energy and sustainable mobility, as well as measures to boost digital infrastructure and skills and the digitalisation of public services. The business environment will benefit from the promotion of e-government and anti-corruption measures. The plan will also support improvements in healthcare, including reinforced cancer prevention and rehabilitation care.”

Next steps

The Commission has today adopted a proposal for a Council Implementing Decision to provide €7bn in grants to Czechia under the RRF. The Council will now have, as a rule, four weeks to adopt the Commission's proposal.

The Council's approval of the plan would allow for the disbursement of €910m to Czechia in pre-financing. This represents 13% of the total amount allocated to Czechia.

An Economy that Works for People Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said: “This plan will put Czechia on the path to recovery and boost its economic growth as Europe gears up for the green and digital transitions. Czechia intends to invest in renewable energy and sustainable transport, while improving the energy efficiency of buildings. It aims to roll out greater digital connectivity across the country, promote digital education and skills, and digitalize many of its public services. And it places a welcome focus on improving the business environment and justice system, backed by measures to fight corruption and promote e-government – all in a balanced response to the Czech economic and social situation. Once put properly into practice, this plan will help to put Czechia on a sound footing for the future.”

The Commission will authorize further disbursements based on the satisfactory fulfilment of the milestones and targets outlined in the Council Implementing Decision, reflecting progress on the implementation of the investments and reforms. 

More information

Questions and answers: European Commission endorses Czechia's recovery and resilience plan

Recovery and Resilience Facility: Questions and answers

Factsheet on Czechia's recovery and resilience plan

Proposal for a Council Implementing Decision on the approval of the assessment of the recovery and resilience plan for Czechia

Annex to the Proposal for a Council Implementing Decision on the approval of the assessment of the recovery and resilience plan for Czechia

Staff-working document accompanying the proposal for a Council Implementing Decision

Recovery and Resilience Facility

Recovery and Resilience Facility Regulation

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Belgium

Death toll rises to 170 in Germany and Belgium floods

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The death toll in devastating flooding in western Germany and Belgium rose to at least 170 on Saturday (17 July) after burst rivers and flash floods this week collapsed houses and ripped up roads and power lines, write Petra Wischgoll,
David Sahl, Matthias Inverardi in Duesseldorf, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt and Bart Meijer in Amsterdam.

Some 143 people died in the flooding in Germany's worst natural disaster in more than half a century. That included about 98 in the Ahrweiler district south of Cologne, according to police.

Hundreds of people were still missing or unreachable as several areas were inaccessible due to high water levels while communication in some places was still down.

Residents and business owners struggled to pick up the pieces in battered towns.

"Everything is completely destroyed. You don't recognise the scenery," said Michael Lang, owner of a wine shop in the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in Ahrweiler, fighting back tears.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Erftstadt in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the disaster killed at least 45 people.

"We mourn with those that have lost friends, acquaintances, family members," he said. "Their fate is ripping our hearts apart."

Around 700 residents were evacuated late on Friday after a dam broke in the town of Wassenberg near Cologne, authorities said.

But Wassenberg mayor Marcel Maurer said water levels had been stabilising since the night. "It's too early to give the all-clear but we are cautiously optimistic," he said.

The Steinbachtal dam in western Germany, however, remained at risk of breaching, authorities said after some 4,500 people were evacuated from homes downstream.

Steinmeier said it would take weeks before the full damage, expected to require several billions of euros in reconstruction funds, could be assessed.

Armin Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and the ruling CDU party's candidate in September's general election, said he would speak to Finance Minister Olaf Scholz in the coming days about financial support.

Chancellor Angela Merkel was expected to travel on Sunday to Rhineland Palatinate, the state that is home to the devastated village of Schuld.

Members of the Bundeswehr forces, surrounded by partially submerged cars, wade through the flood water following heavy rainfalls in Erftstadt-Blessem, Germany, July 17, 2021. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen
Austrian rescue team members use their boats as they go through an area affected by floods, following heavy rainfalls, in Pepinster, Belgium, July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

In Belgium, the death toll rose to 27, according to the national crisis centre, which is co-ordinating the relief operation there.

It added that 103 people were "missing or unreachable". Some were likely unreachable because they could not recharge mobile phones or were in hospital without identity papers, the centre said.

Over the past several days the floods, which have mostly hit the German states of Rhineland Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia and eastern Belgium, have cut off entire communities from power and communications.

RWE (RWEG.DE), Germany's largest power producer, said on Saturday its opencast mine in Inden and the Weisweiler coal-fired power plant were massively affected, adding that the plant was running at lower capacity after the situation stabilized.

In the southern Belgian provinces of Luxembourg and Namur, authorities rushed to supply drinking water to households.

Flood water levels slowly fell in the worst hit parts of Belgium, allowing residents to sort through damaged possessions. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited some areas on Saturday afternoon.

Belgian rail network operator Infrabel published plans of repairs to lines, some of which would be back in service only at the very end of August.

Emergency services in the Netherlands also remained on high alert as overflowing rivers threatened towns and villages throughout the southern province of Limburg.

Tens of thousands of residents in the region have been evacuated in the past two days, while soldiers, fire brigades and volunteers worked frantically throughout Friday night (16 July) to enforce dykes and prevent flooding.

The Dutch have so far escaped disaster on the scale of its neighbours, and as of Saturday morning no casualties had been reported.

Scientists have long said that climate change will lead to heavier downpours. But determining its role in these relentless rainfalls will take at least several weeks to research, scientists said on Friday.

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