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MPs told Brexit trader support service ‘not good enough’

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A £355m government-funded support service set up to help British businesses deal with border issues thrown up by new post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland is “simply not good enough”, MPs were warned on Wednesday.

Northern Irish trade group representatives complained that the Trader Support Service, a consortium led by IT company Fujitsu, was failing to deliver on its promises and was taking several hours to process some paperwork having initially promised customs declarations could be completed in 30 seconds.

Seamus Leheny, Belfast-based policy manager of Logistics UK, said his members had complained of a shortage of TSS staff to answer queries from businesses wrestling with the new bureaucracy created by the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the 2019 Brexit Withdrawal treaty that sealed the UK’s departure from the EU. The agreement leaves the region following EU customs rules even though it remains legally inside UK customs territory.

“There’s people ringing the call centre looking for help and assistance and the phone is ringing off hook. It seems like they have been overwhelmed,” Mr Leheny told parliament’s Northern Ireland Affairs select committee.

A UK government spokesperson played down the complaint from Mr Leheny that calls were going unanswered.

“Over the weekend, there were an average of 88 TSS customs agents managing the phone at any one time. Every call was answered and the majority within 30 seconds,” the spokesperson said.

On the claim that customs declarations were not being processed quickly enough, the government added: “Where the correct data is supplied, over 99 per cent of TSS processed declarations are completed within 15 minutes.”

The TSS was announced in August as a part of a major concession to British hauliers and industry to ensure that goods would flow freely into Northern Ireland when the Irish Protocol came into force at the end of Britain’s Brexit transition period on January 1.

Under the terms of the protocol all goods entering Northern Ireland must comply with EU customs rules, which require businesses to complete import declarations, customs forms and — after a grace period — complex paperwork to certify the safety of plant and animal products. 

Aodhán Connolly, the director of Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said that teething troubles had been exacerbated by the government’s failure to communicate with business the scale of the changes that were coming. 

He added the government needed to “shout from the rooftops” about the border changes in order to take maximum advantage of several grace periods negotiated by the government for the introduction of the new rules.

However on the first day of the protocol coming into force, Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, tweeted: “There is no ‘Irish Sea Border’.” frustrating business groups trying to warn companies to prepare.

“There’s a need for an experienced, informed advice line, because what there is now — the TSS — is simply not good enough,” Mr Connolly added. 

The complaints about the TSS emerged as British and Irish businesses experienced a range of teething problems in trading with both Northern Ireland and the Republic as they grappled with the new rules. 

The extra bureaucracy of sending goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain via Dublin, a key route for goods entering England, was “hugely problematic”, Mr Leheny said.

Rod McKenzie, managing director for policy and public affairs at the Road Haulage Association, which represents truck operators, said the organisation also had “significant worries” about the flow of goods between the north and south of Ireland.

One person familiar with the situation said a fifth of lorries arriving at Holyhead were being turned back because they had not filed online declarations, with most returning when they were filled in. 

Alistair Eagles, chief executive of Seatruck, which runs ferries to Dublin and Warrenpoint in Northern Ireland, said that many hauliers were still grappling with the system.

“There are no queues at ports because the trailers are not arriving,” said Mr Eagles. “They are at the warehouse or manufacturing site because they know they will be turned away.”





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French Greens given a grilling over meat-free school lunches

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Grégory Doucet, mayor of Lyon, said he had no inkling that the school lunches served up in the French city this week would put him at the centre of a political storm. 

But the decision by the environmentalist mayor that children should be offered just a single lunch option — one without meat — prompted immediate denunciations from French government ministers, and protests by farmers who responded by releasing herds of cows outside city hall. 

The ruling — which Doucet said he took for a limited period to avoid long queues for multiple menus that would bunch pupils close together during the Covid-19 pandemic — has set carnivores against vegetarians, town against country, and right against left. 

“It touches a lot of topics deeply rooted in French political culture,” said Vincent Martigny, politics professor at the University of Nice. “Everybody knows we should be eating less meat, but we’re still a very traditional food culture in France, quite conservative. If you don’t eat meat and drink wine, you’re not very French.” 

Doucet and his Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV) , which took Lyon from the centre-right in local elections last year, say the row has more to do with June’s regional elections and the presidential and legislative polls due in 2021. 

“They’re targeting the ecologists because we’re the biggest threat,” Doucet told the Financial Times. 

Farmers released herds of cows outside Lyon city hall to protest against the removal of meat from school lunches
Farmers released herds of cows outside Lyon city hall to protest against the removal of meat from school lunches © Olivier Chassignole/AFP via Getty Images

Even so, a mini-campaign by some ministers in President Emmanuel Macron’s government to curry favour with conservative voters and paint the Greens as crazed ideologues quickly spun out of control and exposed divisions in the cabinet.

Gérald Darmanin, the hardline interior minister, denounced the Lyon Greens for what he called a “moralistic, elitist policy” to deprive working-class students of meat. Julien Denormandie, who holds the agriculture portfolio, leapt to the defence of farmers, calling the decision “shameful” and saying: “Let’s stop putting ideology on our children’s plates!”

Environment minister Barbara Pompili, however, said she was sorry to hear a “prehistoric debate” full of clichés about the supposed nutritional inadequacies of vegetarian food. Macron eventually had to tell them to stop disagreeing in public as he called for an end to the “idiotic” argument. 

The school meals controversy is the latest manifestation of a long-running debate in France and abroad over the environmental sustainability of meat consumption by an increasingly wealthy and numerous world population, given the land taken up by cattle and their greenhouse gas emissions. 

Doucet, a “flexitarian” who said he tried to limit his intake of meat and fish, has campaigned to reduce consumption of animal protein and provide more vegetarian meals in schools, but he said his immediate priority was to ensure the meat served comes from local farmers.

He also pointed out that Gérard Collomb, his centre-right predecessor as mayor, had made exactly the same decision for a single, no-meat menu acceptable to the largest number of school pupils during an early phase of the pandemic — and there had been no political backlash. 

“When we took the decision, we didn’t think for one minute it would lead to a political polemic,” Doucet said. 

Somewhat later than neighbouring countries such as the UK, France is in any case gradually coming to accept vegetarianism. The Michelin Guide this year for the first time awarded one of its prized stars of approval to a French vegan restaurant called ONA — for Origine Non Animale

“People used to be treated as the village idiot if they were vegetarian,” said Jean-Pierre Poulain, a sociologist specialising in food at the University of Toulouse. “That’s no longer the case.” 

The change was slow in coming, said Poulain, but as in other urbanised societies, French city dwellers anthropomorphised pets, idealised wild animals and no longer automatically accepted the legitimacy of killing animals to eat them.

As mayor of Lyon, Doucet has also found himself at the heart of another contemporary debate — this time a particularly French one — about the role of schools and other state institutions in shaping the values and ideals of the nation’s youngest citizens.

Macron and his ministers, who are currently promoting legislation designed to curb Islamist “separatist” ideology and lifestyles, are demanding strict adherence to French secular values. As such they are reluctant to see the state’s prerogatives usurped by local governments with their own priorities.

Conservatives have already fulminated about the Green mayor of Bordeaux rejecting a public Christmas fir because he did not want to celebrate around a “dead tree”. Other Green civic leaders have refused to host the Tour de France cycle race in their towns because of the carbon footprint of all the accompanying motor vehicles.

On the right, the loss of meat as a choice for school meals is sometimes portrayed as another step towards the forced dismantling of the French way of life, but politicians wary of pointless conflicts are more phlegmatic about the affair.

“I don’t think the children of Lyon are going to die of anaemia in the days ahead, but I also don’t think this will do much to reduce greenhouse gases,” Roland Lescure, an MP with Macron’s governing La République en Marche! party, was quoted as saying in Le Parisien.

“Everyone is playing politics,” he added, “including the mayor of Lyon.” 



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ECB signals rising concern about eurozone bond market sell-off

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The European Central Bank has indicated it will increase the pace of its emergency bond purchases to counter the recent sell-off in eurozone sovereign debt markets if borrowing costs for governments, companies and households continue to rise.

Philip Lane, chief economist of the ECB, said on Thursday that the central bank was “closely monitoring the evolution of longer-term nominal bond yields” and its asset purchases “will be conducted to preserve favourable financing conditions over the pandemic period”.

The ECB has pledged to ensure financial conditions encourage investment and spending, helping the eurozone economy to make a swift recovery and lifting inflation towards the central bank objective of just below 2 per cent.

To achieve this, Lane signalled that it would rely on its pandemic emergency purchase programme, under which it plans to spend up to €1.85tn on buying bonds by March 2022. There is just under €1tn of that amount left to spend.

“We will purchase flexibly according to market conditions and with a view to preventing a tightening of financing conditions that is inconsistent with countering the downward impact of the pandemic on the projected path of inflation,” he said.

Eurozone government bonds fell to their lowest levels for almost six months this week, and while Lane’s comments caused a brief rally on Thursday afternoon, prices then resumed their downward path.

Bond yields move inversely to prices, so the sell-off is pushing up the cost of borrowing for governments, which must sell vast amounts of extra debt this year to cover the cost of the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences.

Germany’s 10-year bond yield has risen to its highest level since last March, while the French equivalent returned to a positive yield for the first time since June and Italian sovereign yields hit their highest level since November.

ECB president Christine Lagarde said in a speech on Monday that policymakers were “closely monitoring” the rises. 

Isabel Schnabel, another ECB executive board member, said in an interview with Latvian news agency Leta published on Thursday: “A too-abrupt increase in real interest rates on the back of improving global growth prospects could jeopardise the economic recovery.”

Lane gave more detail of how the ECB defines “favourable” financing conditions, saying it would track the availability and cost of bank lending and market-based funding — in particular, the risk-free overnight index swap curve and the GDP-weighted eurozone sovereign bond yield curve, which have both risen in recent days.

He warned of the need to avoid “a mutually-reinforcing adverse loop” in which banks interpret lower borrowing demand as a negative signal about the economy and companies interpret a tightening of bank lending conditions as a worrying sign about the outlook. 

Eurozone bank lending to the private sector grew by just under €12bn in January, down 75 per cent from the average monthly loan growth last year according to data published on Thursday.

Much of the slowdown was because of a sharp fall in net lending to insurers and pension funds. Lending to non-financial companies also retreated slightly, while lending to households still grew but at its slowest rate since last April.

Krishna Guha, vice-president at Evercore ISI, said “ECB jawboning” was “having little effect” and “the next step — in our view presaged by Lane — is for the ECB to dial up the pace of its [bond] purchases”.

Last week the ECB spent a net €17.3bn on its emergency bond purchase programme, up slightly from the previous week but still well below the levels of last April, during the previous sell-off in government bond markets.

Frederik Ducrozet, strategist at Pictet Wealth Management, said the ECB was likely to wait until it was clear the bond market sell-off was a lasting shift before increasing its emergency bond buying above €20bn per week. But he said that “will bring the risk of disappointment [for investors] — because you have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk as a central bank”.



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Armenia’s prime minister claims military is plotting a coup

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Armenia’s prime minister has claimed the country’s military is plotting a “coup,” and taken to the streets with his supporters after senior army figures in the former Soviet republic called on him to resign.

Nikol Pashinyan has faced months of protests demanding he step down after the defeat of Armenian forces in a six-week war with neighbouring Azerbaijan that ended in November.

The army weighed in on Thursday, calling on the prime minister to quit after he fired the first deputy chief of staff for criticising him.

A letter to the prime minister signed by 40 senior officers warned Pashinyan not to use force against demonstrators, but did not say whether the army would act to remove him from power.

“The current government’s ineffective management and serious mistakes in foreign policy have put the country on the brink of collapse,” the officers wrote on Facebook.

Pashinyan later fired the chief of the general staff, Onik Gasparyan, ordered police to secure government buildings in Yerevan and told his supporters in the capital’s Republic Square to avoid violent clashes.

Demonstrators at an opposition rally in Yerevan demand the resignation of Nikol Pashinyan. They cheered as a fighter jet flew overhead © Artem Mikryukov/Reuters

Describing the situation as “manageable” the prime minister denied he was planning to flee the country and said the army’s statement was an “emotional reaction” to a dispute over the defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

“We have no enemies in Armenia. I am calling for calm,” Pashinyan said, according to Russian news agency Interfax. “Of course, the situation is tense, but we need dialogue, not confrontation.”

He later took to the streets with several thousand supporters and a megaphone — an echo of the 2018 “velvet revolution” that swept him to power following a march across the country that galvanised popular support. A few thousand opposition supporters gathered at a different square and cheered as a fighter jet flew overhead.

Pashinyan has fought off calls for his resignation since signing a Moscow-brokered peace deal in November that cemented territorial gains for Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. The mountainous enclave in the South Caucasus is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but is populated by ethnic Armenians who seized control after a war that broke out in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim country and a close ally of Turkey, launched an offensive in September with the aim of retaking the entire enclave. Armenia’s army was ill prepared for oil-rich Azerbaijan’s modern drone fleet and significant backing from Ankara.

More than 3,300 Armenian soldiers died in the conflict, with a further 9,000 wounded. Thousands of civilians were displaced, including some who set their own homes on fire as they fled land now under control of Azerbaijan.

Russia, the traditional regional power broker and Armenia’s most important ally, remained neutral even as several previous ceasefires failed and has deployed 2,000 peacekeepers to secure the region.

Pashinyan admitted the terms were “unbelievably painful for me and my people” but argued the concessions were necessary to prevent further losses.

The devastating defeat sparked fury among Armenians who stormed the country’s parliament and attacked its speaker, demanding the prime minister’s resignation.

Pashinyan backtracked on a pledge to step down after snap elections earlier this month and remained in office in the face of opposition from Armenia’s ceremonial president, three parliamentary opposition parties, and key church leaders.

The Kremlin said on Thursday it was “following events in Armenia with caution” but considered them “exclusively Armenia’s internal matter”.

Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told reporters Russia was “calling on everyone to be calm” and said “the situation should remain within constitutional limits,” according to Interfax.



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