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Posts tagged with: Brussels

The future of #EUtweetup – I need your help

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 10.01.19First the simple bit: the very short term future of #EUtweetup is that the next tweetups will be on Monday 17th February in Brussels, and Wednesday 19th February in Berlin. The Berlin tweetup will be at Gorki Park from 1800 (details same as last time).

But what about #EUtweetup Brussels? Here I need your help.

The event has grown into a large and remarkable network, and hence I think it’s time to reflect on what the future of the event actually should be, and where it ought to be held.

The idea was to be an informal get together for people who had previously only debated EU politics together on Twitter. There is hence, in my view, no need for an agenda or any sort of speaker. The event needs to allow people to come and go as they please throughout the evening. Also as the event has no organiser or budget as such it needs to be easy enough to do – just a free reservation of a place, and then some tweets to announce it.

However for me there are two main outstanding questions, and for this I need you assistance. Please answer the two polls below, and/or comment below!

Currently #EUtweetup in Brussels happens on an ad hoc basis – it’s when Anthony Zacharzewski or I happen to be in Brussels, and we organise it. Should we keep it ad hoc, or should we set a date – second Wednesday or third Thursday of the month or something? Maximum one a month is plenty I think though.

When should #EUtweetup happen?

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#EUtweetup has been at 3 main locations – James Joyce on rue Archimède, London Calling on Place de Londres, and Café des Epices on Place Jourdan. Neither the James Joyce nor London Calling serve food, while Café des Epices is too much of a restaurant. Some sort of compromise – where food is served as well as it being a pub – would be best. Old Oak and Kitty O’Shea’s at Schuman have been suggested to me as alternatives, although the pub quiz on Monday’s at Old Oak means the days a tweetup works there are narrower. I think one preferred location makes sense, with the opportunity to go elsewhere from time to time.

Where should #EUtweetup happen?

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New year, new #EUtweetup – 9th Jan in Berlin, 15th Jan in Brussels

2014 is going to be quite a year for the EU. It’s election time! And will we all toast the end of José Manuel Barroso’s political career? And Ashton too? And might election turnout increase to a level higher than Viviane Reding’s hair?

Anyway, these, and any other EU question, serious or otherwise, will be debated in more than 140 characters at the first two EU tweetups of the year:

Thursday 9th January, from 1800 onwards – Berlin
Gorki Park Café
Weinbergsweg 25, Mitte (map)

Wednesday 15th January, from 1800 onwards – Brussels
James Joyce Pub
rue Archimède 34 (map)

If you can’t find us, or want to know if we’re still there, have a look at #EUTweetup.

For those that have never been to a Tweetup before, the idea is quite simple: come along, have a beer, and talk in real life with folks you have otherwise been debating with on Twitter. There’s no agenda, it’s informal, people come and go. But we’ve had a good few dozen people coming along to tweetups, so it can’t be bad!

Why low cost carriers are killing the traditional carriers, in two screenshots

I need to book a single flight from Brussels to Madrid in the evening of 27th November. And yes, before you shout at me, I have to leave after 1800 on 27th in Brussels, and arrive before 0800 on 28th in Madrid, so trains are not possible. I need only a single ticket to Madrid, as after the event there I will be departing elsewhere.

Brussels Airlines is the only airline with flights from Zaventem in the evening of 27th. If I ask for a single, this is what I get – €307.

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 23.36.08

If I add a return trip, on some date a while into the future, I get these prices:

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 23.33.28

Even if I add on the price of a cheap return (about €50), I still end up with a total – €170 – that’s considerably lower than the price for a single. The single ticket is for economy+ – basically a crappy snack, and the same small, poky seat.

So what am I doing instead? Flying with Ryanair from Charleroi. Standard price: €20.39, admittedly excluding fees. I can even then afford to take a taxi to my destination upon arrival. If I wanted a return I would simply add the price of the return.

Your defence, Brussels Airlines?

Two political TweetUps: København 12th Sept, Brussels 16th Sept

jamesjoyceSummer is over. Everyone is back to work tweeting about politics. So that means it’s time to get the political twitter nerds together to meet in real life.

For those of you that have not been to one of these before (we’ve run at least three before), the idea is pretty simple: nominate a bar, come along, and meet folks in real life you have only so far argued with on Twitter. Judging by previous experience it tends to be a fun evening, as good Twitter folks tend to be, well, good folks. No need to tell anyone you’re coming – just come along!

This time we have two political tweetups:

Thursday 12th September, from 1800 until late, in København#DKpolTweetUp
This one is for any folks involved in Danish political debate, and indeed EU matters too. It will be at Dyrehaven, Sønder Blvd 72, Vesterbro [map], from 1800 on 12th September.

Monday 16th September, from 1800 until late, in Brussels#EUTweetUp
This is the next in the series of Brussels EU TweetUps. As previously it will be at the James Joyce, Rue Archimède 34, 1000 Brussels [map] (nearest Metro: Schuman)

If you can’t find us, or want to know if we’re still in the bar, have a look at the hashtag for the TweetUp, or DM me on Twitter. See you there!

Taxing public servants (nationally and internationally)

Scandal! Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, pays no tax! How can this be when she’s lecturing more Greeks to pay tax!?! Story from The Guardian here.

Sony Kapoor, so often the voice of reason throughout the Eurozone crisis on Twitter, stated “IMF staff don’t, period!” prompting all kinds of follow up on Twitter, bringing EU officials into the mix too.

For me there are two issues here: the first, and frivolous one, concerns Lagarde herself. IMF (and indeed UN) rules mean officials there do not pay tax in the country in which they are resident, and so be it. Looks odd, but those are the rules. She is not paying tax because she does not have to. The second issue is to why is this the case and – importantly – what should be done about it.

Let’s start first of all at the national level.

If you’re a national civil servant, working in a regular ministry in France or the UK or anywhere else you pay tax like anyone else. You are an employee of the state, but you pay tax like anyone else. So when I worked for the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in the UK (as was, now it’s BIS) I earned in the region of £28000 a year, and took home a net salary of about £21400 or £1780/month. This leads to two issues: practical and ethical. Essentially the state was paying DTI cash, a portion of which was then returned to HM Revenue and Customs. At an administrative, practical level is this sensible? Would it not be simpler to just pay me £21400? I don’t know. But at an ethical level it is surely better I see the gross and net payments. As a taxpayer I can have some grip on how much I am contributing to the collective endeavours of the state, and I have something I can compare with friends working outside the public administration. So – on balance – civil servants paying national taxation, rather than just getting a net salary, seems to make sense.

Then try to apply this internationally. I’m going to try to do this on the basis of the principles of taxation, not Article 34 of the Vienna convention.

Where should Lagarde actually pay tax? She is resident in Washington D.C., as most of the IMF’s staff are. So it would make sense that taxation relating to her residence there – local tax for maintenance of the streets, refuse collection etc. should be paid. Taxation relating to her residence there, in so far as this impacts her everyday life, should also be levied – for hospitals, schools and police for example.

But then it gets a bit more murky. What about social security? As a posted official she would not be entitled to unemployment assistance in the USA in the event of the termination of her contract. Likewise she would not be likely to reside in the USA after retirement, so it could be argued that pensions contributions – in so far as these are managed by a state – are superfluous.

Add onto that the language complexities of international posting, most notable in for the children of EU officials in Brussels, who can send their children to Commission-run European schools rather than to local state funded Belgian ones. Should these officials then contribute to the education budget of the Belgian state? (in reality these schools are paid for from the Commission’s community tax – see bottom of this page). In Brussels there is the additional complexity that institutions do not pay local tax on office space, a matter that caused controversy when the Commission moved into the Madou Tower, located in one of the poorest communes in Belgium. Undoubtedly there will be similar complexities in Washington D.C., Geneva and anywhere else with major international institutions.

There is also the additional complexity of the amount of time a person working for an international organisation is posted there. Within the EU a worker in the private sector can be ‘posted’ for up to two years before having to sign in fully with the country where they are temporarily resident. Should there be an equivalent for officials posted to international organisations, where the length of service determines where taxation should be levied?

Right then, so what is the answer? I’m afraid I do not think there is a simple one. It is clear that Lagarde and people in the same situation as her (including US Embassy officials in London!) should pay taxes where they are resident because they call on the services of that place, and it is important that all citizens contribute. But exactly how much and for what purposes is a much harder issue to determine for the multitude of reasons I have explained above.

That’s of course all a lot more complex than having a quick rant at Lagarde!

Martin Schulz: one step forward and one step back on Strasbourg

The good news: President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz seems to have confirmed his commitment to a single seat for the European Parliament in a Swedish radio interview (very short summary from EUObserver here). Problem: he wants the seat to be Strasbourg and not Brussels.

While such an arrangement may be in the long-term interests of Strasbourg, I am sure it is not in the long-term interests of the European Parliament. With the Commission and Council of the European Union based in Brussels dozens of meetings take place every day between the institutions. A European Parliament based in Strasbourg would mean many more officials making the trip from Brussels to Strasbourg, and MEPs making ad hoc journeys the other way. Such an arrangement might prevent the once a month migration to Strasbourg for the EP, but it would create more confusion and travel than the current arrangement. Hence Schulz’s plan must be resisted.

This could of course be a tactical master plan from Schulz… Make the EP more determined on a single seat, then produce studies to show that Strasbourg is not viable, and it all ends up in Brussels?

Eurostar security absurdity, part II

All was going so well. Eurostar 9156 departed on time from St Pancras at 1904, and arrived at around 2057 (local time, as scheduled) at Calais Frethun.

Then nothing. No departure. Silence.

Then the announcement that “for service reasons” we were to wait 10 minutes at Calais. At 2108 a Eurostar arrived into Calais from Lille, presumably the slightly late running train 9161 (the 1952 departure from Brussels – full Eurostar timetable here). A few minutes later our train departed towards Brussels with a delay of about 12 minutes.

After yesterday’s experience my attention was piqued. So I found the train manager and asked him. Why, I asked, was our train delayed? What does “for service reasons” mean? “It was because of staff” he said. Do you mean, I pushed him, that we were waiting for the rail police to get out of the arriving Eurostar and to get into our train so as they can return to Lille? Yes he said.

So once again a delay thanks to the security issue, although – presumably because they trust their colleagues in London – there was no passport or ticket check of passengers in the train between Calais and Lille.

Bring it on: delay without even the faint notion that it’s in the passengers’ interests!

Security paranoia on a journey from Brussels to London (Eurostar)

I’ve just arrived home, having taken Eurostar 9133, the 1256 departure from Brussels Midi to London St Pancras. The security paranoia on the route is now so absurd it’s worth a blog entry.

The first check at Gare du Midi is a ticket check, where the QR code on a print-at-home ticket is checked and an automatic barrier opens. This verifies the validity of your ticket to travel. If your ticket can’t be used in the barrier it can be manually checked by a member of staff. In short, you can’t get into the terminal without a valid ticket.

Second, your passport is checked by a Belgian passport official, confirming you are leaving Schengen. Third, your passport is checked by a UK Borders official, confirming your are allowed to enter the UK, and your ticket receives a stamp. More about this later. (If you are travelling only as far as Lille you do not have to prove your identity, because Belgium and France are in Schengen – the so called Lille-loophole).

Next the metal detector at security is set at such an absurdly high level in Brussels that they oblige you to take off belts and watches. What am I conceivably going to do with a belt on a Eurostar train? Wrap it around the driver’s head and force him to take us all to Paris instead of London? OK, check my luggage and make sure I don’t have a bomb in it, but no more – that’s what they basically do in London as far as I can tell, so why so strict in Brussels?

Then today when the train called at Lille for more passengers to alight and board, we were told on the public address system in the train that there would be additional checks in the train between Lille and Calais. These checks were carried out by a team of 7 French rail police carrying guns and batons, but just checking tickets (and not passports). I asked the policeman who checked my ticket why he was doing so. “Parce-que c’est comme ça” (because that’s the way it is) he replied. I pushed him further, saying that of course I had to have a valid ticket, because how otherwise could I have actually got on the train? “C’est contre la fraude” (it’s against fraud) was the best I got out of him before he moved off.

Now if this really is against ticket fraud, then why these armed police, and not Eurostar staff? And if this is actually a border check rather than a fraud check, why are they checking tickets rather than passports? Or are they actually checking the stamps on the tickets from Brussels (see above), and are hence working with UK Borders in some way? Or is it all just bravado?

It is also most definitely inconvenience – not for the checks themselves, but because the train additionally had to call at Calais (not in the timetable) to let the police off, and due to the stop the train had missed its slot to pass through the channel tunnel, meaning a delay of 15 minutes. The train manager, when announcing the delay, did not say why the delay had happened.

Then upon arrival in St Pancras, not announced to passengers on the train, all passports and all tickets were being checked by UK Borders at the exit. Which – quite frankly – seems to render other checks superfluous. Why bother having a UK Border check in Brussels, and French police check in the train, if you’re then going to check in London too? Plus, due to the small terminal exit and a few hundred people streaming off a train, the checks are not swift in London – I was only through quickly as I always travel in the front carriages of a London-bound Eurostar.

Now I don’t know what the right answer to this is – in security terms. A passport check for all passengers in Brussels (including Lille-bound passengers) would probably be the simplest, but is not legally viable it seems. Passport checks (with auto passport gates?) at St Pancras would be the most secure if the risk is judged to be adequately high.

But two things are clear from today’s experience: the way the checks are currently done does not work at all efficiently, and the communication about why the checks are happening is deeply inadequate.