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EUROPEAN UNION

Watchdog eyes Opel state help

The European Union’s competition watchdog vowed on Sunday to keep a tight rein on how state aid is given to ailing carmaker Opel, as the firm’s parent company prepares its pitch for help from countries including Germany.

Watchdog eyes Opel state help
Photo: DPA

EU competition commissioner Neelie Kroes told business daily Handelsblatt, in remarks published Sunday, that governments could not offer parent company General Motors help just to protect failing plants in their own countries.

“For us, location plays no role,” said Kroes. “The important thing for us is whether General Motors can prove that the European subsidiary can survive in the medium term without state help.”

After GM announced it was closing an Opel plant in Antwerp, Belgian politicians claimed other governments might have promised state aid in return for a promise from GM not to close plants in their countries – a breach of EU competition rules.

Germany faced similar accusations last year when it offered €4.5 billion in aid to Canadian carmaker Magna, which the German government hoped would buy Opel and keep open plants in this country that employ about 25,000 workers.

GM is demanding €2.7 billion in state aid for its European operations, the proposal for which is expected in the next few days.

Kroes also said that Brussels had so far received no applications from governments to give GM assistance, though she expected they would come soon. She also stressed she had not received any business plan for GM’s European plants.

But her impression was that “GM would not be engaged in Europe if the business had not future here.”

In any case, assistance would only be justifiable, she said, “if the money flows into the development of innovative, environmentally friendly products.”

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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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