Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Five questions surrounding Germany’s coal phase-out plan

Published by Euractiv.

Many in Germany want to have their cake and eat it by scrapping nuclear power and avoiding coal at the same time. Pieter Cleppe looks at some of the questions raised by Germany’s decision.
After a long debate, Germany’s so-called “Coal Commission”, which includes representatives from political, industry, and environmental groups, has recommended the country end its use of coal power by 2038. This still needs to be approved by four German states that will be affected, as well as by the federal government, though Chancellor Angela Merkel has already voiced support.
With questions still surrounding the whole endeavor, here’s an overview of the five most pressing debates.
  1. What will it cost?
The Coal Commission suggests spending at least €40 billion to aid coal-mining states affected by the phase-out, and at least €2 billion per year to limit increases in consumer power bills – already the highest in Europe. 5,000 government jobs would be relocated to the affected regions, carrying costs in itself.
The Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK) estimates the real cost at closer to €170 billion, taking into account the effect on energy prices, possible damages, and the cost of extra investment into alternative energy sources such as natural gas plants. It warns price increases must be avoided, as German companies already face the highest power bills in the European Union.
These come in addition to the costs of Germany’s overall energy transition plan, which aims to almost completely shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy at an estimated price of €1.1 trillion by 2050.
Much of the potential economic damage will depend on the second major issue: energy security.
  1. Will the phase-out plan endanger energy security?
If it weren’t for Angela Merkel’s decision to phase out nuclear energy following Fukushima, the challenge would be much less tricky.
Coal and brown coal now provide more than 42% of Germany’s power, according to the International Energy Agency. That proportion has been growing since the nuclear decision. As a result, Germany has admitted it is on track to miss its 2020 CO2 emissions targets.
Many in Germany want to have their cake and eat it, scrapping nuclear power and avoiding coal at the same time. The Coal Commission wants coal capacity reduced from 42 gigawatts of generation capacity to 30 gigawatts by the end of 2022, and 17 gigawatts by the end of 2030. German industry fears energy blackouts in a country more dependent on coal than the UK or Canada, who have decided to phase it out.
Almost no other country has tried to simultaneously phase out both nuclear and coal simultaneously. Sweden, for example, reversed its decision to phase out nuclear power in 2009.
One study has claimed renewable energy sources overtook coal as Germany’s main power source for the first time in 2018, but that’s not the whole story. As Rolf Schmitz, head of leading energy firm RWE, maintains: “there are days when renewables are covering 70% or more of energy needs, but there are also days when that share is only 5%, when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine”.
Another challenge, acknowledged by the Coal Commission itself, is that major investments in Germany’s energy transport and storage infrastructure are needed to cope with an exit from coal, to transport wind energy created offshore in the North Sea to the south of the country, and to improve storage capacity.
Precisely because of such doubts, Ralph Brinkhaus, the faction leader of Merkel’s CDU in the German Parliament, has warned the coal exit could be delayed beyond 2038 if the deadline creates problems for the electricity supply: “energy supply security must be guaranteed… if it is endangered, we should be free to do another round and address that, without abandoning the path we’ve chosen. There’s no reason to be dogmatic about this.”
  1. Isn’t it all a bit hypocritical?
As journalist Brigitte Fehrle argued in a comment for German public radio: “it would be fatal for the credibility of the whole initiative when instead of receiving energy from German brown coal-powered plants, brown coal from Poland or the Czech Republic would need to be imported”. Merkel herself has already commented that “we want to be out of coal in 2038. Then we need more gas”.
However, gas is no panacea for avoiding carbon emissions. Christian Lindner of German liberal opposition party FDP, who has dismissed the Commission’s recommendations as “pure ideology”, predicted that “in 2030, this game will be repeated with the energy source gas”.
The Dutch government was criticised in a similar way for shutting down gas exploration, with opponents pointing out it may open the door to more gas imports from Russia. Abandoning coal may leave Germany more dependent on Russian gas, with Merkel already under fire for allowing “Nord Stream 2”.
  1. How environmentally friendly are alternative energy sources?
Hazardous materials are necessary to produce solar panels, and wind turbines have their own environmental downsides. But surely those drawbacks are worth it, given how renewables will replace every other energy source?
That’s questionable. On a global level, the role of wind and solar energy is still modest at best. According to the International Energy Agency’s 2016 Key Renewables Trends, wind provided 0.46% of global energy consumption in 2014, and solar and tide combined provided 0.35%. This is total energy, not just electricity, which accounts for less than a fifth of all final energy.
Even if 14% of the world’s energy is considered “renewable”, three quarters of that is biomass. Professor John Beddington, a former UK government chief scientific adviser, argues wood-burning in order to help countries reach renewable energy targets shouldn’t be the way forward; otherwise, Europe may soon need to burn an amount of wood greater than its total harvest – not exactly in line with green gospel.
  1. Isn’t coal energy technology improving?
While progress in renewables makes headlines, fossil fuels have also been improving, with the development of “clean coal” technologies.
The current debate’s hysterical approach ignores the fact that 60% of primary energy will still come from fossil fuels by 2040, down from just 81% today.
If one cares about reducing CO2 emissions, completely phasing out coal is not only expensive but also ignores the role of technological progress in improving an indispensable energy source.

Monday, February 25, 2019

An overview of how the EU27 aren't well prepared for no-deal Brexit

Published by The Spectator  

Auf Deutsch: Achgut.com

As 29 March gets nearer and Theresa May tries to get a Brexit deal through parliament, preparations for no deal continue in both London and mainland Europe. It’s been well-documented that the UK government’s preparations haven’t been optimal, and many British companies aren’t really prepared for no deal. However, on the other side of the Channel, things aren’t going all that well either.

Here is an overview of the EU27’s no-deal plans:
In Germany, the government decided to hire an extra 900 customs officials (trade unions claim that 1300 are needed) to prepare for no deal, but at the end of January, none of these had been employed yet.
‘In no other country is the effect on overall employment as big as it is in Germany’, economics professor Oliver Holtemöller has concluded, commenting on his study that said no deal would cause 100,000 job losses. It’s making German industry nervous. Eric Schweitzer, president of Germany’s chamber of industry and trade last month warned that ‘around 750,000 German jobs depend on free trade with the UK… without a deal, millions of Euros would be due in customs’ registration fees and billions in duty.’ This followed similar warnings from Germany’s car manufacturers and the BGA, which represents the German wholesale, foreign trade, and services sectors.
Perhaps German companies themselves are taking up the task then, if German government action is lacking? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. According to the German central bank, ‘many companies are so far insufficiently prepared for Brexit’. Some big companies are taking measures, but most haven’t made the expensive investments needed into new staff or IT. Germany’s central customs office is especially worriedabout how under-prepared small and medium-sized companies are. Meanwhile, the German farmers federation has warned that a no-deal Brexit, would create ‘chaos’ and have ‘enormous consequences’ for German farmers, due to the impact on the EU budget and market access restrictions.
Surely in France, where the government is more centralised, the situation is more under control? The French government has begun recruiting an extra 740 customs officials and veterinary inspectors. It’s also spending millions on security at ports and airports, and is passing legislation granting it the right to push through laws by emergency decree.
Nevertheless, Medef, France’s largest employer federation, thinks there will be severe trade disruption and ‘absolute chaos in Calais and other ports which export goods to the UK’ in the event of a hard exit.
Jean-Marc Puissesseau, the chief executive of the port of Calais, received a lot of attention when he claimedthat the port ‘will be ready’ for no deal. ‘There will not be any delay’ for trucks, he declared. But it was only in March 2018 that he was claiming the opposite: that customs and sanitary checks could lead to 30-mile tailbacks.
His latest stance is likely in response to concerns that Calais may lose trade to its northern rivals in Belgium and the Netherlands. Xavier Bertrand, chairman of the Hauts-de-France region has basically correctedPuissesseau, stating there was a real danger the port could grind to a standstill, because ‘even at the moment you can see queues of more than half a mile to the tunnel and that is where there are no checks. Imagine what it will be like with checks.’
The National Federation of Road Transporters have pointed out that ‘the new buildings for the extra checks haven’t been built yet and we just don’t know if things will be ready for March 30.’ They also worry that if there are more lorries backed up on roads, it will be harder to stop migrants desperate to reach the UK from trying to sneak in.
That doesn’t really sound like France is ‘ready’ at all.
In the Netherlands, often portrayed as a Calvinist nation where everything is orderly and planned, the Dutch government aims to boost its customs force by around 20 per cent, hiring 928 extra staff. However, only around one third of those will be deployed by the end of March, and only two thirds of the 143 additional staff for the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority will be ready to help by Brexit day. This, amongst other things, has led the Dutch Court of Audit to criticise the government in December, also highlighting that ‘it will only be possible for new recruits to be operational under guidance. This because they have only had a new, shortened training.’
Despite the fact that the Dutch government has started a campaign featuring a fluffy blue monster, including a comprehensive website, urging companies to prepare, only a minority of Dutch industrial companies are ready for Brexit, a KPMG survey revealed.
The Dutch government is busy implementing legislation to prepare for no deal, but it has faced resistance fromthe Dutch Parliament over the sizeable powers it grants to the executive. One of the measures being taken is to grant UK-based asset managers a temporary exemption for providing services in the Netherlands in case of no deal.
The Dutch Central Bank has prepared a survey on the preparations of the Dutch financial market for a possible no-deal Brexit. Their concern is that many Dutch financial institutions use the derivatives markets in London to hedge their risks, and large Dutch insurers and banks’ risk losing access to those clearing house. Europe’s markets regulator ESMA has, however, been showing flexibility, stating that three UK clearing houses can continue to provide services to the EU after March 29, even if there is no deal.
There still are quite a few unresolved challenges regarding no deal, which could cost every Dutch citizen 164 Euros a year, and may lead to a shortage of medicines and medical supplies. A hospital federation has warned ‘we foresee great risks for our daily operations if Britain leaves the EU without a deal… This varies from medicines, tissues and medical supplies becoming unavailable, to problems with data storage and the registration of doctors. The safety of patients is at risk.’ Another hospital federation admitted last month it did not even have a clear idea of the scale of the problem yet.
Europe’s largest port, Rotterdam, handles around 40 million tonnes of goods to and from Britain, and has pointed out that major traffic jams could be caused by no deal, due to lack of space for trucks without the right paperwork and for inspections of goods arriving from the UK. The CEO of the port complained that ‘real talks about how both sides will handle the implications of Brexit were impossible as long as the negotiations between Britain and the EU went on’.
Belgium is particularly vulnerable to no deal. Their central bank has warned it could hit its GDP by 1.2 per cent and lead to 40,000 jobs losses. The government is preparing emergency legislation and has requested the EU Commission to exempt it from EU state aid rules in case of no deal.
Plans to hire to hire extra customs officials and to make sure they are ready by April 2019 are not going smoothly. Last month, trade unions representing customs staff accussed the government of being ‘completely unprepared’. In an optimistic scenario, Belgium will be able to deploy 141 out of the 400 extra customs staff needed by the end of March. Another challenge for Belgium is to find enough new veterinarians to inspect animals at the border, as the Netherlands is also attracting veterinarians from Belgium.
Belgian industry isn’t exactly well prepared either. Last month, one survey found that four in five Belgian companies dealing with the UK are not ready to cope with a no-deal Brexit.
The Belgian medical profession is also worried. Belgian hospitals are stockpiling medicines to prevent shortages and there is a worry that medical equipment, like pacemakers or catheters, may no longer be certified if it’s imported from the UK.
The stakes to avoid no deal are higher for Ireland than for any other EU member state. Not only is there the potential economic cost – estimated at 4 per cent of Irish GDP – but also the risk to the peace process in Northern Ireland. There is even the risk that no-deal border checks would move from Ireland to France or Netherlands. Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, has apparently told Irish party leaders in private that this may happen, amid reports that German Chancellor Merkel and other EU26 policy makers are considering it as a policy. There are also rumours – which have been denied – that the Irish government has been drafting emergency plans to deploy uniformed police to the border in the event of no deal.
Around 1000 extra customs staff are being hired by the government, but Taoiseach Varadkar already admittedlast summer that it wouldn’t be possible to deploy them by the end of March. Land near ports has been acquired by the government for border inspection infrastructure, truck parks and offices. Last month, Fianna Fáil, the largest opposition party, expressed concern over the upgrading of port infrastructure, while criticising the government for only managing to hire 53 of the 300 new veterinary officials needed.
Ireland’s €4.5bn exports to Britain could be badly hit by a no-deal scenario. Tariffs would, according to the Irish government, be an ‘existential challenge’ for the food and drink sector. The Irish Farmers Association has warned that UK tariffs have the potential to wipe out beef production in Ireland altogether. However, even if the UK were to apply a zero tariff policy, Irish businesses may suffer, as this could mean non-European producers would out-compete Irish products from shelves in UK shops.
To cover some of the potential losses, Ireland is already discussing a possible substantial Brexit emergency fund with the EU. However, one source points out to the Guardian that apart from ‘flexibility on state aid rules’, this would be dealt with during European budget discussions, which only start in April. And complicating matters, the Flemish government and others are requesting similar compensation as well.
Last but not least, there’s the issue of medicines, particularly as Ireland is heavily dependent on drugs produced in the UK. Just like the UK government, the Irish government was forced to issue a warning that ‘pharmacists and people in general should not be stockpiling medicines because actually stockpiling in itself sometimes causes problems with supply’. For anyone still in doubt about how prepared Ireland is for no deal, Irish Deputy PM Simon Coveney stressed last week that ‘I wouldn’t like to give the impression that we could easily manage a no-deal Brexit… It would put huge strain on the Irish economy.’
Other member states
Other member states that aren’t likely to be as affected by a no-deal Brexit have also taken measures. This ranges from pushing the EU institutions to secure fisheries access – which is a Spanish concern — to taking national measures to secure the settlement of financial transactions, which Sweden has done. Hiring extra customs staff is something that’s being done by the likes of Latvia and also Denmark, which has even put money aside to pay into the EU budget in case the UK doesn’t. If that isn’t the behaviour of a model EU pupil, what is? Like most member states, Austria is trying to help companies with possible customs bureaucracy, and it may even allow Austrians citizens living in the UK to have dual nationality in case they become British subjects. Most EU member states have also provided reassurance to Britons living in the EU27, saying they can stay in the case of no deal, including Greece. Even in Italy, where the stakes aren’t that high, the ‘sovereignist’ government coalition is considering a bilateral deal with the UK to safeguard financial stability and keep trade with the UK flowing even if there is a no-deal Brexit.
The EU institutions
Last December, the European Council called for increased preparation for all Brexit scenarios, including no deal. As well as multiple other measures, the EU council has made no-deal emergency provisions to help EU fishing fleets, and protect rail services through the Channel Tunnel as well as road transport.
But when it comes to food, we are are far from a satisfying no-deal arrangement. Representatives of companies, farmers and agri-cooperatives from both the EU and the UK have warned the EU that preperation measures ‘will not prevent significant disruption of supply chains in case of no deal.’
When it comes to financial access, UK clearing houses have been recognised and steps have been taken to guarantee that insurance claims can be paid by UK insurers in the EU single market. However, the financial industry wants more to be done, and also wants derivatives contracts that aren’t settled at clearinghouses to be catered for. It wants the EU to allow UK exchanges and trading venues to be used for equities and derivatives transactions before they are then settled at the clearinghouses.
Data also hasn’t been resolved. The UK has said that data will be able to flow after a no-deal Brexit, but the EU still needs to reciprocate. The European Data Protection Board (EDPB), an EU body, has only published a note explaining what kind of paperwork businesses will have to endure to minimise the damage from the UK becoming a ‘third country’. Think the introduction of the EU’s data regulation GDPR last year was a bureaucratic mess? Wait for a no-deal Brexit. Even if data are likely to flow freely, ‘data privacy activists’ mayhave a field day finding violations of the rules, which could cause companies to face legal action.
EU institutions have also made contingency plans for no deal that will give airlines a transition period of six months to align themselves with EU ownership rules, conditional on the UK granting the same rights. Even if it only aims to deliver ‘basic connectivity between the EU and the UK’, it should help the likes of Spanish airline Iberia, which is owned by the UK holding company IAG. It follows warnings by the IATA that up to 5 million airline seats were at risk of being cancelled in case of a no-deal Brexit. Then current arrangements do not appear to be sufficient. The European Regions Airline Association (ERA) has blamed the lack of comprehensive post Brexit EU-UK aviation agreement for the collapse of British airline flybmi. In other words: unilateral no-deal measures are all very nice, but ultimately more deals between the EU and the UK are the only proper safeguard against disruption.
Both the EU, member states and companies are trying to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, but since I looked at this last summer, arranging to limit some of the worst damage seems to be the main thing they have managed to do. Economic estimates of the effect of a no deal are notoriously difficult, but the damage has been estimated at 500,000 jobs for the UK and around 1 million for the EU27. However, even if the reality of no-deal is half as bad as those economic predictions, it won’t be a rosy prospect for anyone and most certainly not for the EU, whose institutions, member states and companies are everything but well-prepared for it.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Franco-Italian tensions on display

Published by The Telegraph

The last time France recalled its ambassador to Rome was during World War II, just after Mussolini declared war on France. This week, it happened again, in what many have labelled a theatrical and overblown response by President Macron to ongoing diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

Since its populist government came to power last June, Macron has poured scorn on Italian politics; describing them as ‘populist leprosy’, amongst other tactless quips. In doing so, he has managed to unite Italian populists from different political factions in opposition - both to him and the wider European project.

Matteo Salvini, the Interior Minister from the Lega Nord party, branded him a “terrible president”, while Deputy PM Luigi Di Maio, a member of the Five Star Movement, met Gilets Jaunes representatives and offered them support to gain seats in the European Parliament. The French government claims this violates“the most elementary diplomacy” because it was unannounced.

Yet Macron’s hyperbolic reaction typifies the way he has behaved since his election. His basic response to any criticism has been to ignore it until the outcry became too great to ignore, as when his government gave way to the Gilets Jaunes in response to their widespread protests at petrol hikes.

All of this has reduced his popularity to record lows and earned him the nickname “Jupiter”. “Napoleon” could have been an alternative, were it not for the fact that many French citizens still view Napoleon with reverence.

In Macron’s defence, reforming France’s bloated bureaucracy will necessarily involve ignoring some vested interests. But the real problem is less that Macron is persisting with particular reforms - rather that the reforms themselves amount to “more of the same”.

Hiking petrol taxes in a country with one the highest levels of government spending in the world - seriously? Anyone could have told Macron that he would lose popular support for his efforts to balance the French budget and scrap the “wealth tax” if ordinary people felt their tax bills increase, whether he can come up with an environmental excuse or not. Yet it seems that common sense is in short supply in the gold-plated halls of the Élysée Palace.

Macron is very much a product of the French establishment. For all the change he has promised, much remains “business as usual”. The same, of course, is true of EU policy, which explains the clash with the Italian populists. Despite their differences, both Lega and the Five Star Movement baulk at the idea of taking orders from Brussels.

Here, they differ emphatically from Macron, who has been on a constant push for further concentration of power at an EU level, pontificating about a powerful Finance Ministry for the Eurozone, more common European taxes and even an EU army. The situation worsened when Macron agreed to push for Germany to have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, ignoring Italian opposition.

All of this has been compounded by a strong dose of hypocrisy. The French President has slammed the Italians for refusing to welcome boats with irregular migrants into its ports, at the same time that France has been pushing back tens of thousands of migrants at the border with Italy. These tensions date back even further - the Italians were never happy with the French-led initiative to topple the Gaddafi regime in Libya, which they believe helped fuel the migrant crisis.

Despite these problems, it remains in everyone’s interest for France and Italy to get along. With Italian growth halting, French banks are the most exposed to any sell-off of the 425 billion euros of sovereign and private Italian debt held by banks in the rest of Europe.

The new Italian government is far from blameless in the ongoing tensions, but what would improve the situation most would be for Emmanuel Macron to come down from his high horse, moving his focus from futile international finger-wagging to overdue domestic reform. Above all, he should recognise that his grand dreams for further EU centralisation aren’t shared by much of the electorate in his own country - let alone outside of it.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Flexibiliteit is nu meer dan ooit nodig om een harde Brexit te vermijden

Gepubliceerd op Knack.be en Elsevier

Het Britse Parlement gaf verleden week eindelijk meer duidelijkheid over welke aanpassingen het precies wil aan het Brexit-uittredingsakkoord dat de Britse Premier Theresa May met de andere Europese lidstaten afsloot in november.

Er is weinig controverse over het feit dat er een zogenaamde “transitieperiode” komt, vanaf 29 maart 2019 tot ten laatste einde 2022. Gedurende die tijd geniet het Verenigd Koninkrijk volledige toegang tot de Europese interne markt op voorwaarde dat het echter ook alle EU-regels overneemt zonder er over te kunnen stemmen. Nog belangrijker is dat de Britten dan ook dezelfde douanetarieven zullen blijven opleggen als de EU. Dat voorkomt dat douanecontroles nodig zijn in Noord-Ierland.

Tenzij er tegen 2023 iets alternatief is overeengekomen, voorziet het uittredingsverdrag dat er een zogenaamde “backstop” of terugvaloplossing in werking treedt. Die houdt in dat het VK vanaf dan vrij regels kan beginnen wijzigen, en ook markttoegang verliest, maar wel nog steeds het douaneregime van de EU volgt, wat betekent dat het ook geen eigen handelsbeleid kan voeren.

Een meerderheid in het Britse Parlement wil nu dat die “backstop” wordt vervangen door “alternatieve arrangementen”. Het is nog onduidelijk wat dat in de praktijk precies betekent, maar de doorn in het oog is in elk geval dat er geen einddatum is bepaald over hoe lang die backstop – status dan wel zal duren. Concreet betekent dit dat de Europese Unie geen veto mag hebben over wanneer het VK een eigen handelsbeleid kan gaan voeren. Ook Labour – leider Jeremy Corbyn heeft hier grote problemen mee. Hij zei daarover: “Het zou de eerste keer in de Britse geschiedenis zijn een Verdrag overeen te komen dat we niet zouden kunnen opzeggen”.

Zijn de Britten irrationeel om de EU ervan te verdenken hen in die “backstop”- status te willen houden? Verschillende EU leiders beweren dat het sowieso niet de bedoeling is dat dit een permanente status wordt, ook al omdat dit juridisch niet mogelijk is via het artikel 50 van het EU-verdrag. Dan kan niet gebruikt worden om een permanente handelsrelatie vorm te geven.

Het lijkt er op dat die vrees niet zo ongegrond is. De Ierse Minister van Buitenlandse Zaken, Simon Coveney, stelt dat “de backstop kan worden vervangen door alternatieve arrangementen, zolang die werken [om een harde grens in Noord-Ierland te vermijden]. Tegelijk stelde hij echter eveneens dat er “geen geloofwaardige alternatieve arrangementen bestaan” in die zin. Met andere woorden: Ierland – en met Ierland de rest van de Europese Unie – wil dat het Verenigd Koninkrijk, de vijfde grootste economie ter wereld, nooit meer een eigen handelsbeleid kan voeren. Het zal dan – net zoals Turkije op dit moment trouwens ook, grotendeels – geen eigen handelsbeleid kunnen voeren. Als de EU bijvoorbeeld een akkoord zou afsluiten met de V.S. of China betekent dit dat de vrijere toegang voor Amerikaanse of Chinese ondernemingen tot de EU ook zal gelden voor de Britse markt, maar dat de Britten niet automatisch de extra toegang zullen genieten die Europese bedrijven krijgen. Het VK zal formeel geen mogelijkheid hebben om zulke handelsgesprekken te blokkeren of te beïnvloeden.

Men kan veel willen, maar hoe realistisch is dit?

De Franse President Macron heeft er bovendien reeds mee gedreigd de Britten in die “backstop” te houden, tenzij er snel een akkoord komt over visserij.

Het uittredingsverdrag vermeldt echter dat de EU een verplichting heeft om ter goeder trouw te proberen om een alternatieve regeling overeen te komen. Als uitspraken zoals die van Macron dus gebeuren heeft het VK volgens het internationaal recht de mogelijkheid om eenzijdig het uittredingsverdrag op te zeggen.

Wat betekent dit? Het betekent enerzijds dat de Britten misschien niet moeten overdrijven over het risico dat ze voor eeuwig en altijd een vazalstaat van de EU op vlak van handel zouden worden. Maar het betekent anderzijds ook dat Ierland helemaal niet zo’n ijzersterke verzekering heeft dat het VK op een bepaald ogenblik geen handelstarieven die verschillend van de EU zijn zullen gaan toepassen.

De Poolse Minister van Buitenlandse Zaken zorgde voor onrust in EU-rangen door als eerste een taboe te doorbreken en te pleiten voor een beperking in de tijd van de backstop tot vijf jaar. Dat zou dus betekenen dat het VK onder het handelsregime van de EU blijft tot 1 januari 2028. Ook al zou de door Brexiteers gewenste eenzijdige afschaffing van douanetarieven niet mogelijk zijn, kan het VK dan ondertussen wel handelsakkoorden onderhandelen met de rest van de wereld, die ten vroegste in 2028 in voege zouden kunnen treden. Tot die datum zou er dan naar een oplossing kunnen worden gezocht voor industriële productieketens, die ook dreigen te worden verstoord door douanechecks, en vooral dus ook voor het vermijden van controles op de Ierse grens.

Als Ierland, maar ook de andere EU-lidstaten zich nu bijzonder inflexibel blijven opstellen over elke aanpassing aan die “backstop”, is er het gevaar op een “harde” Brexit, zonder akkoord, waarbij heel wat van de handel die met het VK verloopt eenvoudigweg illegaal wordt. Enkele maatregelen werden daarvoor reeds voorzien, maar zelfs op vlak van luchtvaart is er nog onvoldoende geregeld, met het risico op een annulering van maar liefst vijf miljoen vluchten. Bovendien zullen noch Nederland, België of Ierland voldoende extra douanepersoneel hebben aangeworven tegen einde maart om de dan vereiste controles uit te voeren. 80% van de Belgische ondernemingen zouden nog niet voorbereid zijn hierop. In Nederland of Groot-Brittannië is het overigens niet veel beter. Chaos verzekerd dus, tenzij men een akkoord sluit.
De strategie van de EU lijkt er tot dusver op elke toegeving aan de Britse conservatieven en hun Noord-Ierse coalitiepartner DUP te weigeren, in de hoop dat Theresa May dan maar met de oppositiepartij Labour een “softere” Brexit overeenkomt. Labour is er immers voorstander van dat het VK in een douane-unie met de EU blijft, al wil de partij tegelijk dat het VK dan wel degelijk invloed krijgt op het handelsbeleid. Het is onwaarschijnlijk dat de EU dit zou toestaan aan een niet-lidstaat – en waarom zou Turkije die mogelijkheid dan ook niet krijgen?- ook al is het een voorstel dat net werd gedaan door een groep Duitse academici. Bovendien is Corbyn dus ook tegen een niet in de tijd beperkte backstop.

Velen hebben betoogd dat het absoluut niet mogelijk is dat het VK van de EU afwijkende douanetarieven gaat heffen zonder dat dan ook douanecontroles in Noord-Ierland noodzakelijk worden. Nochtans verklaarde het hoofd van de douane van Zwitserland, dat zich eveneens buiten de douane-unie van de EU bevindt en een eigen handelsbeleid kan voeren, op een hoorzitting van het Brits Parlement dat wel degelijk mogelijk is om met technologie een ‘onzichtbare grens’ in Noord-Ierland te realiseren.

Op de grens met Zwitserland zijn het vooral kleinere ondernemingen die momenteel last hebben van de douanecontroles. Onder meer daarom heeft de Britse regering voorgesteld om kleinere ondernemingen dan maar vrij te stellen van zulke controles aan de Noord-Ierse grens. Zeker daar zou dit een pragmatische oplossing kunnen zijn, omdat er minder handel is met de Ierse republiek dan met het Britse vasteland. Niettemin weigerde de EU hierover te spreken, uit vrees voor een “gat” in de Europese douanegrens, ook al zijn de havens van Antwerpen en Rotterdam – de twee grote toegangspoorten tot de Europese douanegrens “zo lek als een vergiet” volgens de Antwerpse burgemeester. De vraag is waarom het Ierse vredesproces dan geen ‘gaatje’ in de douane-unie waard is.

Op 14 februari komt er een nieuw debat in het Brits Parlement en Theresa May probeert nu om tegen die datum toegevingen te verkrijgen van de EU.

De EU weigert echter elke flexibiliteit – tenzij in de richting dan van nog meer toegevingen door VK, een softere Brexit dus. Binnen de Europese instellingen is de controle over de Brexit – onderhandelingen door Martin Selmayr, de controversiële adjudant van Jean-Claude Juncker, bovendien aan het toenemen. Hij maakte alvast al openlijk duidelijk dat toegevingen nu niet aan de orde zijn. Het is maar de vraag waarom de Belgische regering en met hen de regeringen van andere lidstaten die zo veel bij een “no deal” te verliezen hebben, dit allemaal laten gebeuren.

De federale regering lijkt zich echter allesbehalve bewust van de dringendheid van de situatie. De Belgische Premier Charles Michel laat zich vooral opmerken door de hoop uit te spreken dat die Brexit gewoon ongedaan wordt gemaakt. Op zich een nobele hoop, al is het wel een beetje vreemd dat Michel al die jaren al de euro-federalistische lijn volgt, die net het VK voor de uitgang heeft doen kiezen. Binnen het Europees Parlement staan de Belgische vertegenwoordigers dan weer al klaar om een mogelijk compromis te torpederen. Een Belgisch Europarlementslid van Ecolo beweerde er zowaar dat een “no deal” het “minste van twee kwaden is”, in vergelijking met “een nederlaag over de backstop”, terwijl dit net onze economie een 2 procent kleiner zou kunnen maken, met een 42.000 jobverliezen tot gevolg, waarvan 28.000 in Vlaanderen. Het getuigt allemaal niet echt van veel verantwoordelijkheidszin. 

De Europese politici nemen beter een voorbeeld aan de fractieleider van de regeringspartij CSU in het Duits Parlement, die de weigering van de EU en ook van Angela Merkel om te heronderhandelen “bevreemdend” noemde, waarbij hij er aan toevoegde: “Het is van het uiterste belang dat er een flexibel antwoord komt, zonder dat daarom het volledige akkoord wordt heropend”. De politicus uit Beieren, de Duitse deelstaat die net zoals ons land ook intens handel met het VK drijft, waarschuwde: “Het is niet ‘Europees’ om koppig te zijn”.