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This blog post was written by guest contributor Thomas Huddlestone, Research Director of Migration Policy Group.

The Brussels Region suffers from one of the largest democratic deficits in the European Union. EU citizens (222,819) and non-EU citizens with 5+ years’ residence (64,171) could be ONE THIRD of all Brussels voters in October’s local elections. That is enormous in Belgian local elections, where councilors can be elected with just a few hundred votes.

Lack of information is the major obstacle. Myths around elections persist and dissuade people from registering. Most non-Belgian citizens have not yet voted in Belgium because they did not receive the right information in time on why and how to vote. For example, did you know:

Voting is not exactly “obligatory” for non-Belgians. Although Belgian citizens must vote in every election, non-Belgian citizens who sign up must vote in that specific election. But then they can de-register as a voter any time up to 3 months before any election by sending a simple letter or email to your commune’s population service. Think of voting as an “opt-in/opt-out” system!

In practice, there are hardly any consequences if you are not able to vote. If you are abroad, sick or unable to vote for other reasons, simply complete a proxy form available on the website of your commune and give it to another voter who votes in your voting place. If you don’t vote or give a proxy, the judicial system “could” give a fine of 30-60 euros to ALL first-time non-voters, but NO ONE in Belgium has been fined since 2003.

No problems with your status or country of origin: The voter lists are local and secret and not shared with any external party. Voting in Belgian communal elections does not have any impact on any of your rights in your country of origin or on your status here in Belgium as any such impact would be contrary to Directive 94/80/EC.

Who can sign up to vote? All European Union citizens who are registered in their commune or have the special ID card. Citizens of other non-EU countries must have 5 years of residence in Belgium.

How to sign up as a voter? The procedure is extremely simple. The form is just one-page-long. No costs, no queues and no appointments are necessary! A photocopy of ID card is recommended but not required!

The deadline to sign up is 31 July 2018. Your confirmation will arrive by post. If you have already signed up for the previous communal elections in Belgium, you don’t need to re-register. But everyone should share this information and form with all of their friends to inform and inspire them to sign up to vote!

For more information, a collaborative campaign has been launched with support from the European Commission and Brussels Region:

“VoteBrussels” campaign, created by the Migration Policy Group AISBL and co-funded by the European Commission’s “Rights, Equality and Citizenship 2014-2020” program, as part of the FAIREU project led by the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS)

 

Day in the life of Schaake (1)

A Day in the Life of Marietje Schaake MEP

Nine years ago, I was elected as a Member of the European Parliament. Although I have been around for quite some time, I can honestly say that not a day goes by where I do not learn new things and meet new people. It is the dynamism and intensity that makes this job so special.

I usually start my day by walking to work. It is spring in Brussels now, which makes the walk from my home to the Parliament very pleasant. After I arrive, I always read the news. I think it is important to start the day by understanding what is going on in the world. Events that happen in the United States or the Middle East affect European politics as the world is truly connected, both offline and online.

This particular Wednesday my first meeting starts at 8.30. Today I exceptionally have no committee meetings or meetings of my political group. During any week, my schedule is quite hectic as I divide my time between Brussels and the Netherlands. This morning I have the opportunity to meet two fellows from the European Parliament’s Sakharov Fellowship. The fellowship is granted to human rights defenders from all over the world. Yesterday I also spoke at the 30 years Sakharov anniversary conference and now I have the chance to learn from the fellows from Jordan and Lebanon in person. For my work in the subcommittee on Human Rights, personal exchanges with human rights defenders are key to gain an understanding of the situation in other countries.

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After several other meetings, I need to rush to an interview with France 24 about the export of chemicals to Syria. On 18 April the Belgian news magazine Knack revealed that three Belgian companies were being accused of exporting chemicals to Syria, including isopropanol, a substance that can be used in the production of sarin nerve gas. The reports are worrying because the export of chemicals to Syria would mean a serious violation of European sanctions against the country. The war in Syria is one of the most horrendous conflicts of our time and I believe Europe should do anything within its power to bring the war to an end, a view I continue to express in my capacity as a member of the committee on Foreign Affairs. Upholding European sanctions is one of the ways to work towards this goal. I told France24 that Europe is as strong as its weakest link and member states should exercise their authority to stick to their commitments.

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At noon I am off to a briefing on digital trade and e-commerce at the British Chamber of Commerce | EU & Belgium. During the ride I quickly check my emails and the news to stay up to date. The British Chamber asked me to speak about digital trade and e-commerce today due to my report on a European digital trade strategy, adopted by the International Trade committee in December 2017. The report calls for a digital trade strategy that enables the EU to combat new forms of digital protectionism and promote its values. I always like these kind of meetings to be as interactive as possible and to have a real conversation with the participants. An important part of my work is to communicate with representatives of public and private parties about European policies and the motivation behind them.

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Back in the Parliament I have a meeting with a human rights defender from Kenya. She is taking part in the Shelter City program in the Netherlands, whereby the Netherlands provides temporary shelter to human rights defenders at risk. The Shelter City programme actually originated from the “European Shelter City Initiative”, introduced by the Czech Presidency of the EU in 2009. To hear about the human rights situation in Kenya is of special interest to me due to my experience in the country. In 2017 I was the chief observer of the European Union to the Kenyan elections. During my time in Kenya I had various meetings with representatives from civil society, who as it turns out are very much connected to the work of the human rights defender I am meeting today.

After the meeting I have just enough time to eat a very belated lunch before I go on to moderate a panel during the ALDE conference on EU cyber defence policy.

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From one panel to another, from cyber defence to digital trade. This evening I am participating in a panel discussion on digital policies together with the European data protection assistant supervisor. The audience is a group of 100 Italian students, who are in Brussels for a three day masterclass. I very much enjoy talking with young people about the European Union and its challenges and opportunities. The Italian students are clearly well-informed and passionate about Europe. The event reminds me the youth is crucial for Europe’s future!

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I’m often asked what daily reality is like for British MEPs in the European Parliament, where we are still fully fledged members, but the prospect of Brexit casts a long shadow.

In my case, as Leader of the Labour Party MEPs, I spend most Tuesdays in London attending the Shadow Cabinet, the Labour Party National Executive Committee and other meetings. My role is to bring the perspective of the Labour MEPs into these deliberations. Sometimes that is bringing specialised knowledge, sometimes simply representing the views of my experienced team of Labour MEP colleagues. Together we collectively represent all parts of the country and come from all wings of the Labour party, but share a view that we must avoid the costly, catastrophic, chaotic Brexit to which we now seem to be heading.

Strangely enough, the routine work of an MEP is largely unchanged. We, with our colleagues, still examine and vote on proposals for EU legislation (most of which will still affect our constituents for many years to come, whatever happens). We also exercise oversight on the Commission, adopt the budget, approve or reject international agreements entered into by the EU, and so on. In light of this, we continue to engage with constituents: individuals, businesses, trade unions, local authorities and other stakeholders.

Our colleagues from other countries broadly accept this. Any animosity is directed at those British MEPs (UKIP and some Conservatives) who led the charge to Brexit, and especially to those who still want to use their position to rubbish the EU or even disrupt it. Most British MEPs do not fall into that category. And our colleagues largely understand that we are acting in good faith.  After all, we don’t represent the UK government, we act as representatives elected (proportionally) in our regional constituencies (by voters not exclusively British), using our judgement and expertise to do what we think is right.

So much of our time follows the daily pattern of most MEPs; parliamentary committee meetings, debates in Parliament and political Group meetings (groups in the European Parliament are international alliances of parties of similar political views; the UK Labour Party is a member of the Socialist and Democratic Group). In all these arenas there are negotiations on compromises; within our Group, between Groups or between Parliament and Council. Some of the most influential MEPs are skilled negotiators.

But Brexit inevitably creeps in, with the UK government still unable, two years after the referendum, to define its opening position in the negotiations on what a future post-Brexit relationship between Britain and the EU would look like. New costs, new problems and new divisions are arising every week, and public opinion is not rallying behind the result of the referendum, as had been expected, but now moving toward a new “people’s vote” on the final Brexit deal.

This blog piece on the importance of honouring Black Europe was written by guest writers from ENAR

21 May is World Day for Cultural Diversity. Yet the European institutions are still struggling to include the estimated 60 million ethnic and religious minorities living in the European Union, even though they are based in Brussels, a cosmopolitan city where 182 nationalities coexist.

It is therefore fitting that this day comes just a few days after the EU hosted its first ever People of African Descent Week in the European Parliament, co-organised by the European Parliament Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup, the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference, the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) and Each One Teach One (EOTO). This landmark event titled Honouring Black Europe, was dedicated to the Black European experience; the contributions Black people have made in Europe now and throughout history, but also the ongoing realities of racism, discrimination and violence they face.

There are an estimated 15-20 million people of African descent in Europe and a significant number of Black people have lived in Europe for centuries. This population is heterogeneous and diverse and so are their life realities and experiences, which remain very often invisible.

This week therefore aimed to raise awareness of the history and contributions of Europe’s Black population, in particular in light of the current United Nations International Decade for people of African descent (2015-2024).

Yet these contributions are very seldom recognised and valued – whether it is in media and political discourses or in education curriculum and cultural life. For instance, following World War II, citizens of the British Empire from the Caribbean travelled to the United Kingdom as part of the ‘Windrush Generation’. They became nurses, doctors, teachers, manual workers, cleaners, and drivers and helped to rebuild post-war Britain, contributions which remain unacknowledged today. There have been Black people living and making history in Germany for over 300 years, such as famous Afro-German poet, activist and educator May Ayim. When Black activists – especially women – are visible and vocal, they are exposed to critical levels of orchestrated hatred, such as journalist Rokhaya Diallo in France.

In a context where Black people experience some of the highest rates of discrimination in Europe, valuing these contributions but also recognising Afrophobia – or anti-Black racism – as a specific and structural form of racism is crucial.

In particular, European countries must acknowledge the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism, which led to deeply rooted stereotypes about Black people. These prejudices continue to this day and feed into the collective imagination and traditions such as blackfacing celebrations in several European countries.

Raising awareness of this history starts at school, by better including the teaching of the history of people of African descent in curricula, with a focus on their important contribution to European societies, and removing racist and inaccurate depictions in textbooks. States should also organise events, days of actions (e.g. Black History Month), documentaries, exhibitions at museums and cultural institutions, to promote and increase knowldege on Black history in Europe, and the cultures and heritages of people of African descent. European States should also take steps towards official recognition of histories of enslavement and colonialism and their profound and continuing effect on people of African descent. Such recognition could come in the form of e.g. memorial sites, museums, official apologies to actively contribute to restoring the dignity of victims and their descendants.

In order to truly ‘Honour Black Europe’, the European Union and national governments must recognise racism against Black people as a specific form of racism and address disparities in access to education and employment, increasing levels of hate crime, and violence and discrimination in the criminal justice system.

It’s high time Black people and other people of colour in Europe can be fully part of our society – politically, economically, socially and culturally – and of a shared future where diversity and equal rights are celebrated.

Ron Aston, Chairman of Interview

Ron Aston is the chairman of the Wednesday Club. The Wednesday Club is an English speaking social club open to elderly people of all nationalities. The club meets on the first and third Wednesday of the month. It was created with the aim of combatting the prevalence of loneliness amongst the elderly. The Wednesday Club is one of the Corporate Social Responsibility charities affiliated with the British Chamber.

When and how did you first hear about the Wednesday Club?

I heard about it through a friend. It began with Dr Lydia Jones, an English doctor in Belgium who realised all of her older patients were only seeing her from month to month. The doctor approached a friend, Deborah, a warden of the then Scandinavian church. She enquired about whether her and the doctor could hire a room twice a month. This is how it started.

I was on the board of British Charitable Fund at the time and now I am chairman.

We have about 20 ladies and gentlemen who attend. One of our members is 98 and we have a few who are in their late 80s and early 90s. We have around the same number of volunteers. We do ferry people to the club if the need arises but this is not always necessary.

What got you interested in getting involved with the Wednesday Club?

I took pre-retirement seven years ago and decided I was going to do charity work. I worked with the British Charitable Fund and the Royal British Legion. It was through my connections there that I heard about the Wednesday Club.

How has the Wednesday Club changed since it was founded?

When I first started at the Wednesday Club it had been around for 8 – 9 months. They used to play games like Bridge, Bingo and Scrabble. When you play games you don’t talk to the people around you but rather, concentrate on the game.

Dr Jones wanted people to interact so we don’t play as many games anymore. Instead, we sit down over tea, coffee and sandwiches and simply spend time to talk to each other.

The people who come treat each other as friends rather than people coming along to the club and this is what is important in fighting off loneliness. It’s about building meaningful friendships and building up a supportive community.

What are some reasons that people should get involved and how can they get involved?

If you are a person who is interested in charity work or simply like to meet people, then the Wednesday Club is a good place to get involved in. You can get involved as a member or volunteer by going to our website http://www.the-wednesday-club.org/.

How has the Wednesday Club changed the lives of those who attend in Brussels and what impact has it made?

The people who come get a lot out of it. A person reached out to one of our staff saying that he received a phone call 6 – 8 months ago. It was about their Dad who was in Brussels and he retired and became lonely. When we asked if he was in need of financial support, the son confirmed that his Dad was just lonely and needed support. Now the father comes to the Wednesday Club every time, he has gained companionship and is no longer stuck at home by himself. Loneliness breeds loneliness. This is why the Wednesday Club is important to elderly people as it provides a place to meet people and form connections.

Why is it important for people who are outside of the Wednesday Club to know about it?

There might be people out there who are lonely and this would give them an outlet. You don’t have to be British to join. We have Belgians, Germans and Brits and we are open to people of all nationalities. If they find out about it, it would help defeat loneliness. It’s also important because depression has risen but the topic of depression is less stigmatised than before. Loneliness can contribute to feelings of depression and this is something that we work towards preventing.

 

The day starts with the ringing of my alarm clock. With the knowledge of my 9:15 AM arrival, I have trimmed down my morning routine to a fine art, maximising my recuperation from the previous day’s work. Shirt, chinos, boots and I’m out the door, man on a mission – no time for style points. The same 15-minute walk to the chamber every day leads to an existential crisis running through my head. Do I deserve that pain au chocolat? No I don’t and I don’t have the money for it.
Heading into work I discover my counterpart, Nikki, who readily tells me of her 6 AM arrival at the chamber and her never ending university essay. Then the first cup of tea of the day. Joe and I, the only full time English tea drinkers in the office reach our usual compromise – making half a cup each, keeping us both happy. With tea in hand like many in Brussels I scroll Politicos Playbook for the first part of the morning as I ease into the work day. If there is something relevant to either the Single Market or Food, Health & Consumer task force’s, the two areas that I work in, I will do some follow up research of articles related to the task forces through Political, Euractiv or Financial Times as well as the European Commission’s and Parliament’s news sites. From my research I produce a monthly press review consisting of any major or relevant events in their individual areas and breakdown: what happened, who’s involved, the next steps, relevance to our members etc. Some items from this review can be taken forward and become topics for event at the chamber.
Before I know it its 11 AM and the caffeine crave kicks in, pulling me across the office to artificially stimulate my capacity for replying to emails which, by this point have stacked up. I take the opportunity with my productivity now peaking to work on securing speakers for a few upcoming EU Committee and task force. Occasionally, this requires me to get on the phone and talk over logistics of the event and answer and questions that people may have about speaking at a chamber event. Next, lunch. There are many options which are thrown around the office: Thai, Lebanese, chicken shop? All of which are tossed aside for the option we all new was going to come out on top – sandwich. After lunch follows the second cup of tea, with the labour of the task yet again split in two I jump back into action. Nursing my tea, I update our Monday Mail adding the new events we have confirmed whilst removing old events which are now outdated. Talking with the EU Committee team we decide which event we should promote and check with both the Business and Trade team as well as the Communications team if they have anything which we need to add to our Monday Mail.
At some point in the afternoon we (the interns) will dedicate 20 minutes or so to a room set-up for an upcoming event, this is usually one or two days in advance as we like to be somewhat organised as well as getting a little workout in. Once I’m back at my desk for the afternoon session, I crack on with preparation for upcoming events, which at the moment includes two dinners with European Commissioners and a panel debate on the Good Package. As part of the event preparation, we liaise with the chairs of the relevant task forces and the speakers deciding on titles, discussion points and to clarify any information. Beyond this, when productivity and brain power levels run low I move on to my marketing material, this includes booklets, flyers and updating the website with the relevant information and images.
By the time 6 PM comes around I start tidying my desk and look to head home unless, I’m needed to help out with one of the later events. During the shift from working to actually leaving the office we (the interns) contemplate if the shred of sunlight we saw two hours ago justifies us blowing off the gym and heading to the pub instead. It does, frequently.

 

 

This blog post was written by Marc Verbeek.

Marc Verbeek

Marc Verbeek is a Tax Partner currently working for Crowe Horwath Vanhuynegem Associates in Belgium, prior to this he worked at the Belgian Ministry of Finance, before moving on to spend 26 years with BDO. Marc is a certified tax consultant. His expertise includes (international) corporate tax advice, international employment tax, corporate tax compliance, rulings and litigation.

One of the biggest changes to the way UK companies interact with HMRC, the UK tax authority, is coming into effect from 1 April 2019. Making Tax Digital (MTD) is HMRC’s initiative to bring technology and tax together, allowing HMRC to become a “world leading, digital tax authority.”

What does it mean?
The changes will mean that all UK VAT registered organisations with a turnover above the UK VAT registration threshold (£85.000) will have to:
• keep, and be able to provide, their UK VAT records digitally.
• submit their UK VAT data to HMRC through compatible software, not through the HMRC online portal.
HMRC will no longer allow UK VAT return figures to be manually entered in the HMRC online portal when submitting the UK VAT return. Instead, you will need to have software capable of doing this for you.

Will I be affected?
Any business registered for UK VAT as their turnover has exceeded the UK VAT registration threshold will be affected. Of those, some already have a digital mechanism to transpose the figures from the UK VAT return workings to a submission, however the majority do not. According to figures from the Chartered Institute of Taxation, the leading professional body in the UK for tax advisers, 87% of UK VAT taxable persons will have to take action as a result of the new rules. The only exemptions will be for religious reasons or in the event of insolvency procedures.

What about international businesses?
Of particular interest to Belgian businesses will be that almost everyone who is UK VAT registered will have to comply with the MTD rules; being established overseas or submitting UK VAT returns outside of the UK will not result in an exemption from MTD requirements.
In addition, it may be a greater challenge to overseas organisations to comply with MTD for UK VAT as their UK activities are likely to be a single part of a larger international activity. This could also be the case for UK organisations who are part of international groups required by their overseas head offices to operate specific accounting or reporting processes and software.
As a result, if your organisation is currently manually entering the UK VAT return figures on HMRC’s portal, MTD will present a significant change to your current UK VAT processes.

What are the main requirements?
HMRC’s intention is that software will be used to maintain the relevant digital records, calculate the UK VAT return figures and to submit the return electronically. This is to be done using functional compatible software.
This software should also act as a digital ‘bridge’ between the UK taxpayer and HMRC’s systems. It will no longer be acceptable for an organisation to manually transpose figures when submitting their UK VAT returns.

When does this take effect?
HMRC has indicated there will be a “soft landing” period between April 2019 and April 2020 without application of financial penalties for record-keeping failures. This is to assist organisations by allowing extra time to update their systems to be fully compliant. There will however, have to be a digital link from the outset between the spreadsheet and the linking software that submits the UK VAT return digitally.
MTD as it currently stands is likely to just be the start of the road; it is intended to be introduced for UK Income Taxes in April 2020 and it is not unreasonable to expect that the scope of what information and data is available electronically for HMRC to access remotely will only get broader. As a result, even with a soft landing period, companies need to proactively take steps to ensure they remain compliant.

What software should I use?
HMRC has stated that it will not be providing software for organisations to use, and currently they have not yet informed taxpayers as to commercial software suppliers who will be providing the “functional compatible software”. Commercial software providers are developing solutions and some organisations will have sufficient in-house IT capability to build their own.
“Functional compatible software” is a software program or set of compatible software programs that must be able to:
• record and preserve electronic records in an electronic form for up to six years
• create a UK VAT return from the digital records
• provide to HMRC information and returns from the electronic records in an electronic form and by using an Application Programme Interface (API) to link to HMRC’s systems
• receive information from HMRC.
There “must be a digital link” between all software used by the organisation for its UK VAT compliance. Examples are given in HMRC’s guidance and a very common one, likely to be familiar to a large number of organisations, is the situation where to prepare the UK VAT return the taxpayer:
– maintains its sales and purchases data in an accounting system
– downloads this data into a spreadsheet for manual manipulation
– manually enters the figures into HMRC’s website for submission.
Under the new rules, the links between the two software programs (accounting system and spreadsheet software) must be digital.

What now?
Although the implementation date is in 2019, like all technology projects, there is a lead time in making the necessary changes to be able to successfully implement the measures needed to comply with the new rules.

Organisations affected by MTD need to consider a strategy for the immediate requirements to be ready for the April 2019 launch date and also give thought as to whether these preparations should include a readiness for a likely future expansion of the MTD requirements, be it for additional UK VAT data or for other UK taxes such as Income Tax.

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