SHARE
COPY LINK

ANGELA MERKEL

Merkel and Macron to meet as Germany takes on high-stakes EU presidency

Chancellor Angela Merkel hosts French President Emmanuel Macron for talks on Monday, just days before Germany takes on the rotating presidency of the European Union with an economy mired in the worst crisis since World War II.

Merkel and Macron to meet as Germany takes on high-stakes EU presidency
Merkel and Macron at a video conference in May. Photo: DPA

Berlin's chairing of the 27-member bloc will be its last with Merkel in charge, and could be the one that defines the legacy of the leader dubbed the “eternal chancellor”.

With the future of the bloc's relationship with Britain still to be determined, a crucial shift to a lower carbon world in the balance and crises from Libya to Syria all jostling for attention, there is no shortage of burning issues to tackle.

But it is the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic devastation it has wrought which will dominate and concentrate minds.

“This crisis that we're currently experiencing is different compared to any other we have experienced since the founding of Europe,” Merkel, in power since 2005, told parliament in an address laying out Berlin's priorities for the EU presidency.

“Alone in Europe, it has claimed more than 100,000 lives. A few weeks of economic standstill was enough to endanger what we have built up over years.”

READ ALSO: Merkel wins surprise backing from Germany over EU aid U-turn

With all to play for, member states are anxiously looking to Europe's biggest economy to take charge.

In an interview published Saturday, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said it was “very fortunate that Germany is taking over the presidency at this time of a major crisis.”

Merkel's long experience and credibility “helps enormously,” she told the Handelsblatt newspaper.

German 'bulldozer'

Besides its geopolitical weight and economic heft, Germany takes on custodianship of the bloc with a strong hand as it has so far withstood the health emergency better than most other member states.

Compared to the debt crisis that threatened to sink the single currency zone in 2009-2010, Germany looks very different today — it's out with Scrooge and in with Lady Bountiful.

Once an obstinate champion of budgetary rigour, Merkel's government has ditched its no-new-debt dogma to throw resources at the crisis.

Its programme to shore up the economy totals more than a trillion euros in spending, loans and guarantees.

Together with Macron, Merkel sketched out the backbone of the 750 million fund proposed by von der Leyen to bolster the bloc's economy.

The fund would offer grants — with no repayment obligation — to countries hardest hit by the pandemic, a major policy U-turn for Berlin.

With an eye on the devastating blow taken by the worst-hit countries like Spain or Italy, Merkel explained that it was “imperative that Germany not only thinks of itself but is prepared for an extraordinary act of solidarity”.

“In such a crisis, everyone is expected to do what is necessary. And what is necessary in this case is rather extraordinary,” she told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

“Of course it's good that things are moving forward finally. But it's regrettable that without a jolt from crisis, this chancellor has usually lacked the drive to make changes,” complained weekly Der Spiegel of veteran firefighter Merkel — set to retire after elections late this year.

The recovery fund is likely to be among the key points raised when Merkel and Macron meet at German government retreat Meseberg on Monday.

Despite opposition from fiscal hardliners such as Austria and the Netherlands, observers believe that the EU's paymaster Berlin will ram through an accord.

“When the Germans are certain they are right, it's very bulldozer, there is no margin for discussion,” a high-ranking EU official said.

'Swan song'

An EU diplomat agreed, saying: “On the recovery fund, I expect Germany to dictate the whole process. Merkel is holding all the cards and (EU Council chief) Charles Michel will follow that.

“She also wants to get Brexit out of the way and she will always go for the deal as she wants to keep the West together. The third leg will be restoring ties with US after the election there.”

READ ALSO: Europe's Franco-German 'motor' sputters back to life

Merkel, who has ruled out running for a fifth term next year, won't have much time.

Brexit talks will have to be done by the end of the year, while in November, the focus will be on whether US President Donald Trump, whose relationship with Merkel has been frosty at best, manages to hold on to his job.

What is clear is that Merkel's fingerprints will be all over the EU's roadmap through the next six months.

“This will be a very Merkel presidency, her swan song,” said the EU diplomat, adding that she would be using it “to craft her legacy”.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

BREXIT

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. 

SHOW COMMENTS