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Post-Brexit trade: Is red tape chaos just ‘teething trouble’ as the UK government argues?

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January has seen Brexit set in motion for real — but for many businesses, operations have ground to a standstill as they struggle to shift goods across new borders.

With the UK now outside the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, importers and exporters on both sides of the English Channel say the new rules have brought a nightmare of red tape and extra costs.

Paperwork and border checks have led to seafood being left stranded in ports, and empty shelves in some supermarkets as deliveries failed to materialise.

Supplies from Great Britain to Northern Ireland have also been hit as the need to keep an open land border on the island of Ireland means the North is largely following EU rules.

The UK government has attributed much of the chaos to “teething problems”, arguing the longer term will bring great opportunities. But some trade experts say some of the new burdens on business are here to stay.

The nature and scale of the problem is illustrated by this selection of some of the hassles reported by traders:

  • “My regular logistics partner has suspended their service completely from the EU to the UK until February. These guys operate in 31 countries & know how to move stock quickly, but the paperwork nightmare is just too much for them” — Daniel Lambert (Wines), wine import company, Bridgend, Wales. He wrote a 22-point Twitter thread detailing problems encountered.
  • “It’s not good. This situation, for me it’s too much paperwork, too much wait, wait, all the time is wait. This is not good.” — UK-based Polish lorry driver Petar Loba, stuck in a queue near Dover.
  • “A shipment that used to cost £95 (€107) and take five minutes to organise will now take an afternoon and cost £400 (€452)” — Richard Townsend of Bailey Paints, a small business which exports paint from Stroud in England to Ireland.
  • “We can’t get deliveries you know. Companies are taking orders and then they’re ringing us back going, ‘we can’t deliver that until further notice’.” — Kieran Sloan of Sawers delicatessen in Belfast, on supply problems from Britain.
  • “The first days were difficult, there were a great deal of delays. Some of our drivers had to wait a week on the British side to make export declarations… (There were) customers who’d declared nothing, those who’d made admin mistakes… queues to obtain documents in England.” — Benoît Lefebvre of French firm Sonotri, on transporting chemical products to England.
  • “All the EU (countries) that used to buy a lot of our fish, they’ve kind of stopped because the fish that were getting transferred were going off, going bad. So we’ve lost our entire export market.” — Ben Vass, fisherman, Devon, England.
  • “80% of our sales get shipped to the EU, so obviously now it’s all stopped. Our prices have dropped. All our fish is getting frozen.” — Nathan Daley, fisherman, Devon, England.
  • “We have had to completely suspend the sending of all our consumer parcels to the EU. We had a bounce-back of every single parcel that we sent from 4th January onwards… It’s because you now need a health certificate even for a consumer parcel. The cost of a health certificate is £180 (€203) per consignment.” — Simon Spurrell, Cheshire Cheese Company.
  • “A customer… had to pay over 50% of what his overall parcel was worth to get it out of customs and we had to send him a VAT invoice… It’s been horrible and it’s almost gotten to the point where we’ll have to probably stop trading with the EU, which is going to cost us thousands of pounds over the next three months.” — Joycelyn Mate of Afrocenchix, exporting afro hair products from the UK.

Why are traders suffering like this?

The Brexit trade deal struck on Christmas Eve was celebrated as a great success. It certainly brought huge relief, avoiding an even more chaotic no-deal scenario with just days to spare.

The agreement means trade can continue between the UK and the EU, free of tariffs (import taxes) and quotas.

Boris Johnson has claimed, wrongly, that there are no non-tariff barriers. The reality is — as seen by the above examples — is that the new trading regime has brought a mountain of extra bureaucracy and costs.

Firms now need to fill out customs declarations. The process involving codes and new IT systems can lead to significant delays. Slower procedures mean higher costs. There are also new regulatory checks for food, with meat, dairy and fish products needing health certificates.

There is a risk that supplies get stuck. Under the “groupage” system, multiple consignments often travel in one trailer. But all may need to be checked, and problems or mistakes can hold up the whole shipment.

There are also complications over “rules of origin” regulations, and VAT (Value Added Tax), as the UK is no longer part of the EU’s VAT area. EU exporters sending goods to the UK have to register with UK authorities and may have to pay UK import VAT. VAT and excise duties are also due on goods entering the EU from the UK.

Some changes have been unexpected. Ireland, for instance, has discovered that it has been sometimes hit by EU import duties. Despite the no-tariff Brexit deal, there is no exemption if goods pass through Britain on their way to or from the continent, as they are no longer considered to be of EU origin.

The European Commission warned last July of significant border disruption from the end of the transition period, regardless of whether a trade deal was agreed.

What have industry bodies been saying?

The UK’s Road Haulage Association says so worried are exporters over customs demands or the danger of getting stuck in port — not to mention the additional burden of COVID-19 tests for drivers — that many are not sending at all.

The RHA has reported that at least 40% of lorries bringing goods from the EU to Britain are returning to the continent empty, which has a “huge impact on the supply chain”.

The British Meat Processors Association has said the post-Brexit problems “are now causing a serious and sustained loss of trade with our biggest export partner”.

“If continental supermarkets are unable to have products delivered the way they need them to be, this trade will simply be lost as EU customers abandon UK suppliers and source product from European processors,” said Nick Allen, BMPA’s Chief Executive.

“Members are already being told by their EU customers that they’ll be looking to Spain and Ireland to buy products from now on.”

The fishing industry, whose produce is equally highly perishable, has echoed such complaints. The Scottish seafood industry in particular has been sounding the alarm.

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Germany’s new government pledges to tackle homelessness

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dw– It’s quiet during the day at the Caritas shelter in Gesundbrunnen, a diverse and working-class area in northern Berlin. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t lots to do. Martin Parlow, a part-time employee who organizes the shelter for the Catholic social welfare organization, has food to buy, bills to pay and staff and resources to organize.

Every night, around 18 men come in out of the cold, he says. They’re here for a shower, a warm meal and a safe place to sleep. Some are drunk when they arrive. Others are running from the law for small-time offenses. Most are off the grid in Germany, coming from elsewhere in the European Union.

They go out again the next morning to face a variety of difficult circumstances: low-paid jobs or begging, struggles with addiction, and mental and physical ailments that go untreated. The elements are their enemy. “Some people have been coming here for years, which is strange and sad because this is a really basic accommodation,” Parlow, who oversees a team of eight workers, tells DW.

The shelter is warm but austere. The main sleeping area has the look of a cheap backpacker hostel: metal bunk beds spread out across a linoleum floor, divided by simple privacy screens. Many of the “guests,” the term Parlow uses for those who sleep here, come back every night and leave some basic possessions — slippers, hats, drinks and body products — at their bedsides.

Parlow is in his third year at the shelter, which means most of his experience has been under pandemic conditions. Despite widespread fear at the beginning, he said the shelter refused to stop its work when COVID-19 came to Germany, though adjustments had to be made, such as reducing the number of people accommodated in compliance with social distancing restrictions. There used to be 25 people allowed in on a night, he said, and more if a desperate situation called for it.

Masks, tests and contact tracing are luxuries. The staff is now vaccinated, as are some of the homeless people who come in — but that was months ago with the Johnson & Johnson shot, which might be less effective now.

Long-term problem, winter-only solution

“Our mission is to save lives by providing a warm bed,” Parlow explains. “When this system was created 30 or 40 years ago, people were dying out on the streets.”

The advantage of being open only at night and during the winter, he says, is that people can come without formalities — no papers shown, no questions asked. But there are many downsides. Running the night shelter is expensive — around €45 ($50.80) per bed, per night — despite the limited services offered. Berlin’s homeless network is moving towards a 24/7 model, says Parlow, which would make it possible to provide more in terms of counseling, job help and longer-term housing prospects.

Even that is a stopgap. In Berlin and across Germany, a housing shortage and skyrocketing rents are making it harder to find and hold onto stable living conditions. Germany has a substantial low-wage sector, and major studies have shown that income inequality is rising, a greater share of salary has to go to rent and these pressures are creeping into the middle class.

“If you don’t have the security of your own four walls, everything else is so hard,” Parlow said. “How do you recover from being an alcoholic if you’re sharing a room with an alcoholic?”

Even huge organizations like Caritas are having trouble securing affordable housing stock to pass onto people in need, he added. A mix of for- and non-profit companies, working with the city, offer short-term space for tens of thousands of people, which they can end up living in for years.

Increased migration has caught policymakers off guard over the years, as has the rush of property investors. That, coupled with insufficient housing regulations and a lack of enforcement, has all contributed to the homeless problem.

Goals, plans, strategies — but few details

Germany’s next government, led by the Social Democrats (SPD) and set to be sworn in next week, wants to dramatically expand new housing construction with a focus on affordability and to end homelessness by 2030. The governing coalition agreement mentions “putting forward a national action plan” but lacks specifics on how to go about it.

“The goal to overcome homelessness in this decade can succeed only with the cooperation of all federal levels,” Ingrid Herden, an SPD spokesperson, told DW in a statement. “That’s why there will be a working group between the federal government and the states, which will take on the preparatory work of presenting a national action plan.”

Germany has four-year legislative periods, which means the next government could take until 2025 to come up with such a plan. That would leave five years to implement it.

“It’s basically true that the new government still needs to figure out what the national action plan entails and how the goals of the coalition agreement will come to life,” Krister-Benjamin Schramm, a spokesperson for the Green Party, told DW in a statement.

A Greens proposal from 2019 to combat homelessness remains on the table, Schramm said.

COVID-19: Germany immunizes its homeles

The SPD and Greens are also in Berlin’s state government, which in its own coalition agreement has put forward slightly more concrete steps at the city-state level. They include using more of its own and EU funds to combat homelessness, keeping a closer legal eye on evictions and lowering the bar to get people into housing.

Both the Berlin and federal governments talk about “housing first,” a concept developed in the United States and experimented with in Germany that aims to get people into their own homes with no strings attached. That flips the script on other programs, which require homeless people to first meet certain requirements, such as dealing with addiction, before they receive a place to live.

Fixing a problem you can’t see

Social welfare organizations have welcomed the new political will to tackle homelessness but are waiting to see the proof in the pudding. The Federal Association for Homeless Help (BAG W), for example, is calling for stronger constitutional housing guarantees, more eviction protection, better rent control and easier ways for those without a fixed address to get on the books so they can receive adequate health care.

Taking action — and knowing what it might cost — can’t happen without a firmer sense of the extent of the problem. A law mandating regular and comprehensive data collection on homelessness came into effect only in 2020, and the first statistics are not expected until next year.

Until then, advocates and policymakers can only go on best estimates. Nationwide, there were 678,000 people without a home in 2018, according to BAG W. That includes 441,000 refugees and 19,000 children. Nearly 12% had jobs, and almost the same share were pensioners. Housing debt was the leading cause of losing a home.

The estimate has more than tripled since 2018, driven largely by refugees who — despite their protected social status and often employable skills — can more easily fall through the cracks and struggle to find solid work.

The true number at risk, Parlow said, could be much higher. The estimates don’t catch, for example, young people who can’t leave their parents’ homes, or those stuck in bad relationships because they have no place else to go. In Berlin alone, Parlow thinks there could be 200,000 people in precarious housing situations.

Waiting on the state’s plans, shelters like the one Parlow oversees in Berlin will remain on the front lines in the battle against homelessness — largely outgunned by the social and economic forces they face.

“You can solve this issue — if you really want it as a society or a government,” Parlow said.

Edited by Rina Goldenberg.

While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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Magdalena Andersson: Sweden’s first female PM returns after resignation

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bbc– Sweden’s first female prime minister has been reappointed to the top job after political turmoil forced her to resign within hours of taking the post last week.

MPs backed Social Democratic Party leader Magdalena Andersson by a narrow margin in a new vote on Monday.

She will attempt to lead a one-party government until an election in September next year.

She stood down as PM last Wednesday after her coalition collapsed.

Just hours earlier, Ms Andersson had been elected as Sweden’s first female prime minister by a single vote in parliament.

But the 54-year-old economist’s plan for forming a new coalition government with the Green Party was thrown into disarray when her budget proposal failed to pass.

  • Sweden’s first female PM resigns hours after appointment

Instead, parliament voted for a budget drawn up by a group of opposition parties, including the far-right Sweden Democrats.

The Green Party said it would not accept a budget drafted by the far-right and walked away from the government, leading to its demise.

By convention, the prime minister in Sweden is expected to resign if a coalition party leaves government.

In Monday’s vote in Sweden’s parliament, the Riksdag, 101 of its 349 members voted yes, 75 abstained and 173 voted no.

To be appointed prime minister under Sweden’s political system, a candidate only needs to avoid a majority voting against them.

At a news conference after the vote, Ms Andersson said she was ready to “take Sweden forward” with a programme focused on welfare, climate change and crime.

But without the support of other parties, Ms Andersson will struggle to pass legislation in parliament, where the centre-left Social Democrats hold 100 of 349 seats.

After a week of drama, Magdalena Andersson’s prime ministerial career is back on track, but Sweden’s political soap opera is far from over.

Ms Andersson still has to implement a budget put together by some of her right-wing rivals. Plus, she’s got to govern a fragile minority without the formal support of the Greens, who’ve been a crucial coalition partner since 2014.

All this has highlighted the complexities of having a deeply divided eight-party parliament. Some political commentators here are worried that Ms Andersson’s chaotic rise to power may have dented trust in the entire political system.

Once formed, Ms Andersson’s new government will remain in place until general elections, which are set to take place in September next year. Until then, she’s got just over nine months to prove herself to the public.

A former junior swimming champion from the university city of Uppsala, Ms Andersson began her political career in 1996 as political adviser to then-Prime Minister Goran Persson.

She has spent the past seven years as finance minister before becoming leader of the Social Democrats at the start of November.

She replaced Stefan Lofven, who resigned as prime minister after seven years in power.

Until Ms Andersson took over, Mr Lofven had remained prime minister of a caretaker government after being ousted in an unprecedented vote of no confidence in June.

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Covid: Europe region faces 700,000 more deaths by March – WHO

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bbc– A further 700,000 people could die of Covid by March in Europe and parts of Asia, the World Health Organization has warned.

The death toll already exceeds 1.5 million in the 53 countries of what the WHO terms as its Europe region.

The WHO warned of “high or extreme stress” in intensive care units in 49 of the nations by March 2022.

Europe is facing a surge in cases, prompting Austria to return to lockdown and others to consider fresh measures.

A number of countries – including France, Germany and Greece – could also soon make booster jabs a requirement for their citizens to be considered fully vaccinated.

But several countries have seen fierce protests against new measures. The Netherlands saw several nights of rioting over a partial lockdown.

In its assessment, the WHO warned Covid was the top cause of death in its Europe region.

“Cumulative reported deaths are projected to reach over 2.2 million by spring next year, based on current trends,” the WHO said on Tuesday.

Confirmed Covid-related deaths recently doubled to almost 4,200 a day, it added.

In Russia alone, the daily death toll has been recently topping 1,200.

A high number of unvaccinated people and the prevalence of the Delta variant in some countries were key factors behind high transmission rates in the Europe region, the WHO said.

The WHO Europe director, Dr Hans Kluge, urged those who were still unvaccinated to get the jab.

“All of us have the opportunity and responsibility to help avert unnecessary tragedy and loss of life, and limit further disruption to society and businesses over this winter season,” he said.

As well as European nations, the WHO also considers Israel and ex-Soviet states like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as making up the region.

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