Brexit and budget top lively Bundestag debate led by Merkel

It was a lively day in German politics on Wednesday, as politicians debated Brexit, the budget, migrants - and even the Alternative for Germany's (AfD)suspicious party donations.

Brexit and budget top lively Bundestag debate led by Merkel
Chancellor Angela Merkel presents her voting card in the Bundestag on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

In an impassioned speech, Angela Merkel raised concerns about the state of the world, where individual interests and a return of nationalism make it increasingly difficult to conclude global agreements.

It was Merkel's first speech in the Bundestag since she announced she was stepping down as leader of the centre right Christian Democrats (CDU) after 18 years. 

The Cold War world was terrible, “but it was clear”, Merkel said. Today, it is not clear how nations will act with each other. She said a strong Europe was right for Germany. “German interest means always thinking along with the others,” she said.

Despite difficult compromises, Merkel relies on the approval of the 27 EU states for the Brexit treaty with the UK.

SEE ALSO: Merkel defends UN migration pact amid party split

“We agree to this withdrawal treaty,” Merkel said. “We still have reservations from Spain,” she said with reference to the Gibraltar question.

SEE ALSO: Merkel 'very happy' Brexit draft deal has been reached

She hoped that there would be a solution by the Brexit summit next Sunday.

Centre left Social Democrats (SPD) leader Andrea Nahles said that Britain's withdrawal from the EU was a turning point.

She said there must be “more cooperation” within Europe. Nahles renewed her proposal for a European-wide unemployment insurance.

SEE ALSO: 'I'm still holding out for a people's vote': The Brexit reaction from Germany

Plans for this, however, have been met with resistance from coalition partner CDU and its sister party the Christian Socialists (CSU).

AfD payments brought up

Meanwhile, AfD faction leader Alice Weidel went into defence mode over the debate about dubious donations received by the party from abroad and stressed that the money had been paid back.

Co-leaders of AfD Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland hug. Photo: DPA

Weidel has come under increasing pressure since German media revealed recently that the AfD's Lake Constance branch received 18 donations from a Swiss pharmaceutical firm, PWS, between July and September 2017, totalling some 150,000 Swiss francs (€130,000 euros).

On Wednesday Weidel said: “There were no cash cases that were carried back and forth and whose contents disappeared into drawers and whose whereabouts no one remembers.”

The AfD co-leader stressed that the matter had not cost the taxpayers a single cent. With a view to her own affair, she stressed: “Yes, we made mistakes. We recognized it, reacted and repaid it. The Constance public prosecutor's office is now investigating Weidel on suspicion of an infringement of the party law.

Merkel's dry response to Weidel received a round of applause. “The nice thing about free debates is that everyone gets to talk about what they think is important for the country,” she said.

Focus for 2019 budget will be families

With a total expenditure of €356.4 billion euros, €3.24 billion euros have been budgeted for 2019.

SEE ALSO: Why pressure is growing on the German government to cut your taxes

On Friday, the federal budget, which is to get by without new debts for the sixth time in a row, is to be finally adopted by the members of parliament.

Since 2014, it has been possible every year to ensure that expenditure does not exceed income – this is also due to the bubbling tax revenues. But due to the good revenue situation, there has been massive criticism that the coalition is not easing the burden on citizens by lowering taxes.

SEE ALSO: Should people without children be forced to pay more tax in Germany?

However, despite ongoing repayments, the debt burden is still around two trillion euros – around €26,520 per capita.

In addition to the relief for health insurance contributions and pension improvements, the focus will be on families in 2019: a relief package of €9.8 billion euros per year will be put together.

Thousands of planned new jobs with the security authorities and customs will also be discussed.

However, pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) leader Christian Lindner accused the federal government of unsound budget policies. He accused the coalition of “creating demands that will strangle the budget in the future”.

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How roaming charges will hit travellers between the UK and EU in 2022

Trips between Europe and the UK and vice versa may well become more expensive for many travellers in 2022 as UK mobile operators bring back roaming charges. However there is some good news for all EU residents.

People look at their mobile phones.
How travellers between the EU and UK could be hit by roaming charges in 2022 (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP)

EU ‘roams like at home’ at least until 2032

First the good news. The European Union is set to decide to extend free roaming until 2032, so if you have your phone contract registered in an EU country you don’t have to worry about extra charges.

In addition to waiving the charges, the new regulation aims to ensure that travellers benefit of the same quality of service they have at home when travelling within the EU. If they have a 5G contract, for instance, they should also get 5G through the EU if possible. 

Under new rules, travellers should be given information about access to emergency services, including for people with disabilities.

Consumers should also be protected from prohibitive bills caused by inadvertent roaming on satellite networks when travelling on ferries or aeroplanes.

The final text of the new regulation was provisionally agreed in December. The European Parliament and Council will formally endorse it in the coming weeks.

UK companies reintroducing roaming charges this year

And now the bad news for travellers to the EU from the UK

Customers of UK mobile phone operators face higher fees when travelling in Europe this year, as some companies are bringing back roaming charges for calls, text messages and data downloaded during temporary stays in the EU.

This is one of the many consequences of the UK withdrawal from the European Union. Because of Brexit, the UK is no longer part of the EU’s “roam like at home” initiative which was designed to avoid shocking bills after holidays or business trips abroad.

The EU’s roaming regulation allows people travelling in the European Economic Area (EU countries plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) to make calls, send texts and browse the web using their regular plans at no extra cost. Switzerland is not part of the scheme, although some mobile phone providers offer roaming deals or special prices to cover travel in Switzerland.

Under EU rules, if the plan’s allowance is exceeded, the roaming fee is also capped at €0.032 per minute of voice call, €0.01 per SMS and €2.5 + VAT per gigabyte downloaded in 2022 (it was €3 + VAT in 2021). The wholesale price networks can charge each other is capped too.

The regulation was adopted for an initial period of five years and is due to expire on June 30th 2022. But the EU is preparing to extend it for another ten years. This time, however, the UK will not be covered. 

Which UK companies are reintroducing charges?

Three major UK network operators this year will reintroduce roaming charges for travels in the EU.

As of January 6th 2022, Vodafone UK will charge customers with monthly plans started after August 11th 2021 £2 per day to roam in the EU. The amount can be reduced to £1 per day by purchasing a pass for 8 or 15 days. Free roaming continues for earlier contracts, Data Xtra plans and for travels to Ireland.  

From March 3rd 2022, EE will also charge £2 per day to roam in 47 European locations, Ireland excluded. The new policy will apply to plans started from July 7th 2021. Alternatively, EE offers the Roam Abroad Pass, which allows roaming abroad for a month for £10. 

Another operator that announced a £2 daily fee to roam in the EEA, except for Ireland, is Three UK. The charge will apply from May 23rd 2022 for plans started or upgraded since October 1st 2021. The data allowance in monthly plans that can be used abroad is also capped at 12 gigabytes. 

O2 already introduced in August last year a 25-gigabyte cap (or less if the plan’s allowance is lower) to data that can be downloaded for free while travelling in Europe. Above that, customers are charged £3.50 per gigabyte. 

Other mobile operators said they have no intention to bring back roaming charges in the short term, but if won’t be surprising if they do so in the future. 

Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection Policy at UK consumer organisation Which? was disappointed at the changes and urged the UK and EU to “strike a deal on roaming charges” to stop companies “chipping away at the roaming benefits customers have become used to” and “prevent the return of the excessive charges people used to encounter.” 

By law, charges for mobile data used abroad remain capped at £45 per month and consumers can only continue data roaming only if they actively chose to keep spending. 

What about EU residents travelling to the UK?

In the EU, most mobile phone operators seem keen to continue free roaming for travels to the UK, but some have announced changes too.

In Sweden, Telenor aligned UK’s prices to those of non-EEA countries on May 1st 2021 while still allowing free roaming for some plans. 

Another Swedish operator, Telia, ended free roaming with the UK and Gibraltar on September 13th 2021 giving customers the option to access 200 megabytes of data for SEK 99 per day. People travelling to the UK can also buy a weekly pass allowing to make calls, send texts and download 1 GB of data. 

In Germany Telefónica Deutschland and 1 & 1 have extended current conditions for the UK until at least the end of 2022. However companies may keep other options open depending on negotiations with roaming partners. 

A1 Telekom Austria brought roaming charges back for the UK last June. Customers now have to pay €2.49 per minute for outgoing calls and €1.49 per minute for incoming calls if they are in the UK or Gibraltar. An SMS costs 99 cents and each 100 KB of data €1.49. 

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.