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OPINION: Why Germany struggles to understand the issues at heart of Brexit

Britain's stubborn, uncompromising political culture favours small victories over compromise. In Germany, where coalition-building is the norm, Brexit bewilderment remains strong, writes Jon Worth.

OPINION: Why Germany struggles to understand the issues at heart of Brexit
A float depicting UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Brexit at the Düsseldorf Carnival celebrations earlier this month. Photo: DPA

Throughout the whole sorry Brexit saga, politically-minded Germans have had to throw a fair few of their preconceptions about the British out of the window.

SEE ALSO: Germany plans to extend transition period for Brits in case of no-deal

Last week’s turbulent European Council in Brussels that found a solution for a delay to the UK’s exit was a further case in point. UK-EU relations have often been tense and complicated, but there was always the recourse to the pragmatism of the British, to fall back to what works.

Yet not for the first time, that was not in evidence at the summit. Once more Theresa May met the leaders of 27 other EU countries and came only with a Plan A – to submit the Withdrawal Agreement to a so-called “Meaningful Vote” once again.

SEE ALSO: 'Three weeks to find a miracle': Europe reacts to yet more Brexit chaos

A third time, after it had suffered crushing defeats twice already. Fellow leaders asked the British Prime Minister what she would do if her Deal were to be voted down and her reply was that she was simply following her plan to get her deal through.

Germany’s Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth spoke for many before the summit when he demanded “clear proposals of the UK Government on why an extension [to the negotiation period] is necessary”.

But in the absence of any workable proposal from May, it was left to the leaders of the 27 EU Member States, Angela Merkel among them, to propose a pragmatic way forward and save the UK from the No Deal Brexit cliff edge of its own making.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel followed by British Speaker John Bercow. Image: DPA

After this latest dose of the EU having to save Britain from itself, ZDF’s satirical Heute Show put its finger on a nerve. “Who wants to talk about Brexit again?” Oliver Welke asks in the latest episode. Cue loud groans from the audience. “Brexit is stuck in the mother of all cul de sacs” he goes on. “Even the British themselves have had enough of it!”

No Brexit compromise to be found

If the absence of pragmatism in UK politics is the symptom, then the root cause is harder still for the German satirists, journalists and politicians to understand. Why can the British political parties not find a compromise between themselves to make Brexit work? If the CDU can collaborate with the SPD to form a grand coalition in Berlin, why not work that way to find a solution for Brexit?

The heart of this issue is the very different nature of political parties, and how they are led, how starkly different parties are in the UK in comparison to Germany. The Conservative and Labour Parties have been sworn enemies for decades, and in the House of Commons have not needed to collaborate in modern times. In May and Corbyn, they are each led by people who have each spent more than 40 years in their respective parties.

While Germans may laugh about John Bercow barking “Order, order”, they ought to reflect on why British political culture is so bad that he has to even seek to control the braying masses in the Commons. Such tumult in the Bundestag would, thankfully, never happen.

Trying to solve these party issues – either by replacing May or Corbyn or both of them, or reforming the party system (that is in turn dependent on the archaic electoral system) – are topics for the period once the short term crisis of Brexit has passed.

As if that were not enough, one of the reasons MPs in the House of Commons cannot sort out the mess Theresa May’s Brexit has created is rooted in one of the other traditions of UK politics – the constituency connection. Yes, Members of the Bundestag have their Wahlkreise, but there are lists too. In the UK there are only the constituencies.

SEE ALSO: Brexit: German firm stockpiling toilet roll for anxious Brits

Brexit was a 'protest vote'

Brexit has been tying pro-EU Labour MPs in northern English constituencies in knots. Old industrial towns like Wigan, Doncaster or Stoke on Trent – where barely a German tourist has ever set foot – voted to leave the EU, but return Labour MPs to Westminster, and those same Labour MPs are largely pro-Remain.

“But Brexit will hit the economies of these places hard!” say German commentators with a perplexed look on their faces. Indeed. But voters are not rational – Brexit was a way that some of these left-behind places could kick the system, in the same way as voting for the Alternative for Germany (AfD) was largely a protest vote.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to the Bundestag, which tends to be calmer than Westminster. Image: DPA

Meanwhile on the Conservative side, the party’s members are even more heavily pro-Brexit than the party’s voters. Tory pragmatists like Nick Boles are not scared of their voters, but worried by the europhobic attitudes of members that would then not be ready to reselect them to be the party’s candidate for their constituency at the next election.

So then the UK’s lack of pragmatism in the Brexit negotiations is rooted in its dysfunctional parties, and that in turn is amplified by the narrow, local focus on constituencies imposed by the election system. It would all be quaint and traditional for German onlookers, had Brexit not amplified it into a crisis for the UK itself and a mighty headache for the EU.

Jon Worth is a Berlin-based political analyst, consultant and blogger. His Euroblog has been covering UK-EU relations for more than a decade. He teaches EU Negotiations at the College of Europe in Bruges.

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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.