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EUROPEAN UNION

Merkel responds to Opel protectionism charges

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has defended her government's decision to aid of auto maker Opel, which has sparked accusations of protectionism.

Merkel responds to Opel protectionism charges
Angie checks out a new Opel at the car show on Thursday. Photo: DPA

“We are naturally determined to resolve the remaining problems in a spirit of European equality,” Merkel said as she inaugurated the Frankfort motor show on Thursday.

“If we had not intervened with a bridging loan when General Motors (GM) declared bankruptcy, many Europeans would have been in trouble,” the German leader said. “It was mutually beneficial.”

Berlin granted Opel a loan of €1.5 billion in May as its US parent company was getting set to declare bankruptcy.

GM chose last week to sell a 55 percent stake in Opel to the Canadian auto parts group Magna and the Russian bank Sberbank, the takeover candidates favoured by Berlin.

But the German government has been criticised for influencing a decision taken just weeks before a German election by neighbouring countries where plants belonging to Opel or its sister brand Vauxhall might be closed.

“Europe must not let Berlin pay for job cuts to go elsewhere,” the Financial Times wrote on Thursday.

Belgium, which is home to a threatened Opel plant, has asked European leaders to examine the deal and might file a complaint with the European Commission.

Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy raised the issue with Merkel on the sidelines of Thursday night’s European Union summit in Brussels.

“I explained to her the feelings and active fears being expressed in Belgium,” he said.

In Spain, where a demonstration is planned near an Opel plant, Industry Minister Miguel Sebastian said: “We always felt… that Magna was not the best alternative.”

Magna wants to shed 10,500 posts of the 50,000 total at Opel and Vauxhall, including 4,000 in Germany, while pledging not to shut down any German plants.

Opel boss Hans Demant told AFP in an interview that talks with Magna were ongoing and said they could be wrapped up in early October.

“There are lots of people who are giving their opinion at the moment, and most have no idea what they are talking about,” he said.

General Motors and Magna/Sberbank need to finalise details of a state aid package for Opel, worth a total of €4.5 billion that Berlin would like to share with the different countries where the company has operations.

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VISAS

REVEALED: EU plans digital-only Schengen visa application process

Soon those non-EU nationals requested to have a Schengen visa to travel to European countries will no longer need to go to a consulate to submit the application and get a passport sticker, but will be able to apply online. 

REVEALED: EU plans digital-only Schengen visa application process

The European Commission has proposed to make the Schengen visa process completely digital.

The special visa, which allows to stay for tourism or business (but not work) in 26 European countries for up to 90 days in any 6-month period. 

Nationals of third countries such as South Africa, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka need the Schengen Visa to visit Europe, but they are not needed for other non-EU nationals such as Britons or Americans. You can see the full list of countries who need a Schengen visa here.

The proposal will have to be approved by the European Parliament and Council, but is in line with an agreed strategy that EU governments are keen to accelerate in the aftermath of the pandemic. 

Once agreed, the system will be used by the countries that are part of the border-free Schengen area. These include EU countries, excluding Ireland (which opted out), and Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Cyprus (which do not issue Schengen visas). Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Switzerland, which are not EU members but have signed the Schengen Convention, will be part of the new system too.

Paper-based processes required applicants to travel to consulates to submit the application and collect their passports with the visa, a procedure that “proved problematic during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Commission said.

Some EU countries have already started to switch to digital systems but not all accept online payments for the visa fees. 

When the new system will be in place, the Commission says, applicants will be able to check on the EU Visa Application platform whether they need a visa. If so, they will create an account, fill out the application form, upload the documents and pay. 

The platform will automatically determine which Schengen country will be responsible for the application and applicants will be able to check their status and receive notifications. Travellers will then be able to access the visa online, and if needed extend it too.

“Half of those coming to the EU with a Schengen visa consider the visa application burdensome, one-third have to travel long distance to ask for a visa. It is high time that the EU provides a quick, safe and web-based EU visa application platform for the citizens of the 102 third countries that require short term visa to travel to the EU,” said Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson.

“With some member states already switching to digital, it is vital the Schengen area now moves forward as one,” said Commission Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas.

However, first-time applicants, people with biometric data that are no longer valid or with a new travel document, will still have to go to a consulate to apply.

Family members of citizens from the EU and the European Economic Area, as well as people who need assistance, will also be able to continue to apply on paper. 

The EU Visa Application platform will be used from third countries whose nationals must be in possession of a visa to enter the EU and is different from the ETIAS (European Travel Information Authorisation), which is currently under development.

The ETIAS will be used by non-EU nationals who are exempt from visas but who will need to apply for a travel authorisation prior to their trip. This will cost 7 euros and will be free for people below the age of 18 and above 70. 

Based on the discussion between the European Parliament and Council, the Commission could start developing the platform in 2024 and make it operational in 2026. EU countries will then have five years to phase out national portals and switch to the common online system. 

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