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Posts tagged with: Brussels

Uber returning to Brussels: I think this is a decent solution


Taxis in Brussels have been been plastered with the slogan “Ceci n’est pas un taxi clandestin” for some months now, in protest at Uber that was allowed in Belgium, then banned, and now – according to this story from Politico – has a reprieve and its legal status will be sorted out.

The argument was that the regular taxis were somehow honest and regulated, and Uber was not, and hence the slogans on the official taxis. Yet the Politico piece quotes Belgian deputy PM Alexander De Croo who says that Brussels taxis actually only declare an average of €25 each a day in income. Clearly a lot of the money the taxis are making is going undeclared. Who is actually clandestin then?

The solution Brussels proposes for Uber therefore strikes me as inherently sensible. The official taxis will be to a certain extent sorted out (they will have to accept credit cards for example), and they will be the only ones allowed to use taxi ranks, taxi lanes, and to be flagged down on the street. They will be the kind of public service orientated taxi service – with higher privileges and higher obligations. Think of them of the black cabs of London.

Uber drivers will be the ones providing the lower level of service – they have to be pre-ordered, and may still be cheaper, and you may as a customer not know what you will get, but the drivers will have to be established as independents, pay taxes, and have Uber as only a secondary source of income – good. Think of Uber as like minicabs in London.

The compromise here strikes me as inherently sensible. Whether you like or loathe Uber as a firm is not the right way to look at this – mobile internet, and different ways to establish trust and social norms, can change the way business is conducted. Law to protect the old business model of taxi firms is not the solution here; regulation of companies like Uber, and some organisation of the market is. Brussels has got the balance right here I think.

(Please note: I have never used Uber, and do not intend to do so. I use taxis on average about twice a year, when there is simply no other way to get to my destination. So I am not writing this from the point of view of someone trying to defend something that matters to me personally. It doesn’t.)

[UPDATE 22.4.2015, 1600] More details of the practical aspects of the new taxi regulation from Pascal de Smet here (thanks @BrusselsGeek for the tip)

Villo! + MOBIB = 6 months of free cycling in Brussels

5972405565_692e269eed_zI recently saw an advert in the Brussels Metro offering 6 months of free membership of the Villo! cycle share scheme. At the time of writing this offer is valid for the next 3 weeks (until the end of September 2014), but may be repeated.

Villo! is the communal hire bike scheme in Brussels with the bikes with the yellow mud guards (same idea as Velib in Paris or the Barclays Bikes in London).

There are two components to the Villo! system – a subscription (lasting a day, a month, or a year), and the cost of each bicycle hire – first 30 mins free, then 50 cents per 30 minutes thereafter. The current offer gives you a free subscription for 6 months, but the charges for each individual hire period remain unchanged.

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The future of #EUtweetup – I need your help

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 10.01.19First the simple bit: the very short term future of #EUtweetup is that the next tweetups will be on Monday 17th February in Brussels, and Wednesday 19th February in Berlin. The Berlin tweetup will be at Gorki Park from 1800 (details same as last time).

But what about #EUtweetup Brussels? Here I need your help.

The event has grown into a large and remarkable network, and hence I think it’s time to reflect on what the future of the event actually should be, and where it ought to be held.

The idea was to be an informal get together for people who had previously only debated EU politics together on Twitter. There is hence, in my view, no need for an agenda or any sort of speaker. The event needs to allow people to come and go as they please throughout the evening. Also as the event has no organiser or budget as such it needs to be easy enough to do – just a free reservation of a place, and then some tweets to announce it.

However for me there are two main outstanding questions, and for this I need you assistance. Please answer the two polls below, and/or comment below!

Currently #EUtweetup in Brussels happens on an ad hoc basis – it’s when Anthony Zacharzewski or I happen to be in Brussels, and we organise it. Should we keep it ad hoc, or should we set a date – second Wednesday or third Thursday of the month or something? Maximum one a month is plenty I think though.

When should #EUtweetup happen?

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#EUtweetup has been at 3 main locations – James Joyce on rue Archimède, London Calling on Place de Londres, and Café des Epices on Place Jourdan. Neither the James Joyce nor London Calling serve food, while Café des Epices is too much of a restaurant. Some sort of compromise – where food is served as well as it being a pub – would be best. Old Oak and Kitty O’Shea’s at Schuman have been suggested to me as alternatives, although the pub quiz on Monday’s at Old Oak means the days a tweetup works there are narrower. I think one preferred location makes sense, with the opportunity to go elsewhere from time to time.

Where should #EUtweetup happen?

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New year, new #EUtweetup – 9th Jan in Berlin, 15th Jan in Brussels

2014 is going to be quite a year for the EU. It’s election time! And will we all toast the end of José Manuel Barroso’s political career? And Ashton too? And might election turnout increase to a level higher than Viviane Reding’s hair?

Anyway, these, and any other EU question, serious or otherwise, will be debated in more than 140 characters at the first two EU tweetups of the year:

Thursday 9th January, from 1800 onwards – Berlin
Gorki Park Café
Weinbergsweg 25, Mitte (map)

Wednesday 15th January, from 1800 onwards – Brussels
James Joyce Pub
rue Archimède 34 (map)

If you can’t find us, or want to know if we’re still there, have a look at #EUTweetup.

For those that have never been to a Tweetup before, the idea is quite simple: come along, have a beer, and talk in real life with folks you have otherwise been debating with on Twitter. There’s no agenda, it’s informal, people come and go. But we’ve had a good few dozen people coming along to tweetups, so it can’t be bad!

Why low cost carriers are killing the traditional carriers, in two screenshots

I need to book a single flight from Brussels to Madrid in the evening of 27th November. And yes, before you shout at me, I have to leave after 1800 on 27th in Brussels, and arrive before 0800 on 28th in Madrid, so trains are not possible. I need only a single ticket to Madrid, as after the event there I will be departing elsewhere.

Brussels Airlines is the only airline with flights from Zaventem in the evening of 27th. If I ask for a single, this is what I get – €307.

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 23.36.08

If I add a return trip, on some date a while into the future, I get these prices:

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 23.33.28

Even if I add on the price of a cheap return (about €50), I still end up with a total – €170 – that’s considerably lower than the price for a single. The single ticket is for economy+ – basically a crappy snack, and the same small, poky seat.

So what am I doing instead? Flying with Ryanair from Charleroi. Standard price: €20.39, admittedly excluding fees. I can even then afford to take a taxi to my destination upon arrival. If I wanted a return I would simply add the price of the return.

Your defence, Brussels Airlines?

Two political TweetUps: København 12th Sept, Brussels 16th Sept

jamesjoyceSummer is over. Everyone is back to work tweeting about politics. So that means it’s time to get the political twitter nerds together to meet in real life.

For those of you that have not been to one of these before (we’ve run at least three before), the idea is pretty simple: nominate a bar, come along, and meet folks in real life you have only so far argued with on Twitter. Judging by previous experience it tends to be a fun evening, as good Twitter folks tend to be, well, good folks. No need to tell anyone you’re coming – just come along!

This time we have two political tweetups:

Thursday 12th September, from 1800 until late, in København#DKpolTweetUp
This one is for any folks involved in Danish political debate, and indeed EU matters too. It will be at Dyrehaven, Sønder Blvd 72, Vesterbro [map], from 1800 on 12th September.

Monday 16th September, from 1800 until late, in Brussels#EUTweetUp
This is the next in the series of Brussels EU TweetUps. As previously it will be at the James Joyce, Rue Archimède 34, 1000 Brussels [map] (nearest Metro: Schuman)

If you can’t find us, or want to know if we’re still in the bar, have a look at the hashtag for the TweetUp, or DM me on Twitter. See you there!

Taxing public servants (nationally and internationally)

Scandal! Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, pays no tax! How can this be when she’s lecturing more Greeks to pay tax!?! Story from The Guardian here.

Sony Kapoor, so often the voice of reason throughout the Eurozone crisis on Twitter, stated “IMF staff don’t, period!” prompting all kinds of follow up on Twitter, bringing EU officials into the mix too.

For me there are two issues here: the first, and frivolous one, concerns Lagarde herself. IMF (and indeed UN) rules mean officials there do not pay tax in the country in which they are resident, and so be it. Looks odd, but those are the rules. She is not paying tax because she does not have to. The second issue is to why is this the case and – importantly – what should be done about it.

Let’s start first of all at the national level.

If you’re a national civil servant, working in a regular ministry in France or the UK or anywhere else you pay tax like anyone else. You are an employee of the state, but you pay tax like anyone else. So when I worked for the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in the UK (as was, now it’s BIS) I earned in the region of £28000 a year, and took home a net salary of about £21400 or £1780/month. This leads to two issues: practical and ethical. Essentially the state was paying DTI cash, a portion of which was then returned to HM Revenue and Customs. At an administrative, practical level is this sensible? Would it not be simpler to just pay me £21400? I don’t know. But at an ethical level it is surely better I see the gross and net payments. As a taxpayer I can have some grip on how much I am contributing to the collective endeavours of the state, and I have something I can compare with friends working outside the public administration. So – on balance – civil servants paying national taxation, rather than just getting a net salary, seems to make sense.

Then try to apply this internationally. I’m going to try to do this on the basis of the principles of taxation, not Article 34 of the Vienna convention.

Where should Lagarde actually pay tax? She is resident in Washington D.C., as most of the IMF’s staff are. So it would make sense that taxation relating to her residence there – local tax for maintenance of the streets, refuse collection etc. should be paid. Taxation relating to her residence there, in so far as this impacts her everyday life, should also be levied – for hospitals, schools and police for example.

But then it gets a bit more murky. What about social security? As a posted official she would not be entitled to unemployment assistance in the USA in the event of the termination of her contract. Likewise she would not be likely to reside in the USA after retirement, so it could be argued that pensions contributions – in so far as these are managed by a state – are superfluous.

Add onto that the language complexities of international posting, most notable in for the children of EU officials in Brussels, who can send their children to Commission-run European schools rather than to local state funded Belgian ones. Should these officials then contribute to the education budget of the Belgian state? (in reality these schools are paid for from the Commission’s community tax – see bottom of this page). In Brussels there is the additional complexity that institutions do not pay local tax on office space, a matter that caused controversy when the Commission moved into the Madou Tower, located in one of the poorest communes in Belgium. Undoubtedly there will be similar complexities in Washington D.C., Geneva and anywhere else with major international institutions.

There is also the additional complexity of the amount of time a person working for an international organisation is posted there. Within the EU a worker in the private sector can be ‘posted’ for up to two years before having to sign in fully with the country where they are temporarily resident. Should there be an equivalent for officials posted to international organisations, where the length of service determines where taxation should be levied?

Right then, so what is the answer? I’m afraid I do not think there is a simple one. It is clear that Lagarde and people in the same situation as her (including US Embassy officials in London!) should pay taxes where they are resident because they call on the services of that place, and it is important that all citizens contribute. But exactly how much and for what purposes is a much harder issue to determine for the multitude of reasons I have explained above.

That’s of course all a lot more complex than having a quick rant at Lagarde!

Martin Schulz: one step forward and one step back on Strasbourg

The good news: President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz seems to have confirmed his commitment to a single seat for the European Parliament in a Swedish radio interview (very short summary from EUObserver here). Problem: he wants the seat to be Strasbourg and not Brussels.

While such an arrangement may be in the long-term interests of Strasbourg, I am sure it is not in the long-term interests of the European Parliament. With the Commission and Council of the European Union based in Brussels dozens of meetings take place every day between the institutions. A European Parliament based in Strasbourg would mean many more officials making the trip from Brussels to Strasbourg, and MEPs making ad hoc journeys the other way. Such an arrangement might prevent the once a month migration to Strasbourg for the EP, but it would create more confusion and travel than the current arrangement. Hence Schulz’s plan must be resisted.

This could of course be a tactical master plan from Schulz… Make the EP more determined on a single seat, then produce studies to show that Strasbourg is not viable, and it all ends up in Brussels?