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I wouldn’t say I’m an old hand at AGM’s but I’ve sat through quite a few and organised some too.  But this year was another new experience, and somewhat of a challenge – the Chamber’s first digital AGM. 

Over the last few months’ we’ve all discovered the joys of Zoom, particularly the ease of moving from one meeting to another and how good it is to be able to meet with people whatever their location.  AGM’s, however, are a very particular kind of meeting and the governance requirements impose some challenges.  They are a hybrid between a presentation and a meeting and need to allow maximum participation from all who attend.  The Chamber team did some extensive research and trialling of other platforms.  There are some fabulous webinar platforms available but the need for flexible participation pulled us back to Zoom.

So, to the Chambers 110th AGM.  We had near 100% attendance from those registered (another benefit of remote meetings) and a very interactive meeting.  It’s my observation that remote meeting platforms allow participants to contribute more, it is easier to speak and less intimidating for those who might be intimidated.  On a meeting platform there is no separation in any way between speakers and ‘audience’ and this creates a different dynamic. 

While AGM’s legally are focussed on reviewing the previous year, the current circumstances necessitate more focus on the now and the future.  Our President, Tom Parker reiterated how central the Chamber is for businesses who are active in the UK-Belgian space and after his review of the year the ‘floor’ was taken by our new CEO Dan Dalton.  Dan brings his wealth of experience as an MEP to the Chamber at exactly the right time – his stature and connections will enhance the Chamber, attract more members and give top level insight into the pivotal relationship as the UK negotiates its future trade relationship with the EU. 

We had presentations from our key committees: the EU Committee, the Future Relations Committee and the Business, Trade and Investment Committee.  There are exciting times ahead for the Chamber in all these areas and there is a key message – be involved, this is your Chamber, we represent your interests and want to understand more how we can work effectively to support your business. 

So, now the less exciting stuff – writing minutes and following up with the our new Council members.  Actually, just kidding, I love this stuff and good governance is the bedrock of effective and appropriate decision making.  It’s a privilege to be part of this and to support the Chamber and our members in these challenging times.  I hope that next year we can see each other in person and look back on a very particular time. 

Melanie Barker – Membership and Operations Manager

Our pre-COVID-19 photoshoot

The impact of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown measures have affected each of us in different ways. It’s caused health issues that have changed the lives of many, whilst others have been left unscathed. It’s also freed the time of thousands of people who’ve been placed under the furlough scheme, whilst the days of others have become substantially busier for a number of different reasons.  
However we’ve all had to learn what it’s like to stay at home, and for most of us, to work from home as well.

March 13th marked the last day that the BritCham team worked in the office. The original plan was to work from home and the situation would be assessed every two weeks – over two months later we are still working from home.

You’d be forgiven if at first you thought that we would not have much to do at the Chamber, as much of our business revolves around hosting events and facilitating networking between companies. But in reality we’ve been far busier than usual! We’ve continued to support our Members through council, by hosting various webinars, by offering opportunities for our Membership to join the webinars hosted by other Members to support businesses throughout these times of crises, whilst continuing to comment on the development of the negotiations about the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

There’s no doubt that the sudden change to the home-office was difficult at first. I struggled to maintain my productivity during the first week with distractions from my Mum wanting to chat, from my dog wanting to play, and from my mind wanting to wonder! But I’ve since found a routine that works for me and the days feel more productive now than they were during the time that I was working in the office.

Outside of work I’ve also found that there are now more hours in the day to do things that I didn’t have the time to do before. The commute would take 45 minutes before and after work, and having after work drinks would often result in doing nothing but cooking food, watching an episode of something on Netflix, and then falling asleep once I got home.

With less time wasted and less distractions, I’ve found myself having the time to read, write, and exercise more regularly and I feel better for it.

Though I hope for the restrictions to be lifted soon, I also hope that some of these good habits will stay!

Whilst gauging the wellbeing of the rest of the team is not as easy as it was in the pre-Covid era as the routine lunch time conversations or the daily catch-ups around the lunch table are not taking place, it seems as though our team all seem to be mastering the working-from-home routine, and all seem to be relatively content with the status quo. Every Thursday we have a quiz on Zoom that I’m yet to win (the questions are rubbish..), but it’s good to have a weekly catch-up outside of work.

It is strange to consider how things will be once all lockdown restrictions are lifted and when that eventually might be. You’d like to think that the quizzes that we’re having at present will take place in person as opposed to on Zoom. However, further questions spring to mind about how different things might be when we finally emerge from this: how will we be expected to greet one another if we’re not supposed to shake hands? Is the elbow tap going to stay?

One thing that’s apparent is that businesses have demonstrated their resilience to survive by adapting to the current circumstances and putting in place certain mechanisms to ensure that they’re able to continue to do their work.

This is illustrated by the fact that thousands of businesses have been able to implement a work from home policy for all staff when this would have been an absurd notion only a few months ago.

Whether you prefer to work from home or at the office the long term-effect is likely to be significant.

Geography may no longer matter when applying for roles. Having demonstrated the ability to work remotely for a company in Brussels from my home in Cardiff, what’s to stop others from applying for similar roles but establishing these living arrangements from the first day?

The technological leaps that have been taken on the masses have indicated to me how interconnected the general population, and the global business community has the potential to be.

The impacts of the lockdown may change the way companies hire people from here onwards, which is exciting! 

Still, the thought of working from home permanently is not necessarily something that’s appealing to me. I do miss the human interactions that working in an office with my colleagues brings.

Who knows what the long term impacts of this pandemic may be? All that I know is that I’m looking forward to returning to the office at some point, and I’m fed up of Zoom!

Tomos Ireland-Life – Communications Officer

There are many outstanding issues still to be negotiated as part of the future relationship between the EU and the UK, however one area where there shouldn’t be much disagreement is over the British government request to join the Lugano Convention.

There should be an overwhelming interest for both sides to keep the existing relations in this field. The consequences would be severe and very negative for businesses and consumers on both sides of the Channel should there be no agreement to continue enforcement of civil and commercial judgments.

The Lugano Convention covers cross border enforcement of civil and commercial legal judgements. It applies between the EU and Switzerland, Norway and Iceland and sits alongside the Brussels 1 Regulation rules for the EU member states.

Although the UK will not be an EFTA member, the Convention is also open to non-members, such as the UK. In addition, the existing ETFA members (Norway, Iceland and Switzerland) have all supported the UK’s accession.

The decision to support the UK’s application should not be overly controversial. It eliminates the need for multiple legal actions in different countries, and the risk that companies can’t get their assets that are in other countries. As a result, the system significantly reduces the risk of doing business with someone in another country. Once a judgment is reached under the system, enforcement is rarely contested.

Without this system in place businesses will need to calculate for potentially multiple actions in different countries, especially in cases related to assets that are in another country.

Without Lugano accession enforcement of judgments will no longer happen automatically and the result is likely to lead to the other business party challenging the judgment. This can open up multiple issues, such as whether the compensation that the first court awarded is acceptable or whether the original judgment is questioned by the enforcing court. All substantive laws as to how disputes are settled are different from one European country to another and the Lugano/Brussels system is the only way to smooth these differences over and ensure that a pan-Continental dispute settlement system can work.

Most businesses aim to reduce these risks by agreeing choice of court clauses. Brussels I and Lugano reduce the risk further by setting the rules under which the choice of court clauses are respected by all. As national laws differ on this point, without the overarching framework, there is still the risk of litigation surrounding whether the choice of court clause that you have negotiated and expected to be able to rely on, is in fact valid.

If a business ends up in litigation, much more expense is needed to solve what are essentially procedural issues (such as whether you are in the right court that has the power to solve issue). Litigation also lasts longer as there are more complex issues to be solved. In addition, the end result can still be questioned by another court, costing businesses even more money.

This significantly raises the cost of doing business and this will often have bigger impact on SMEs. Smaller companies, without large legal departments, would have to budget for costs that have not existed in Europe since the 1970s, when the first Brussels convention came into force creating the system which is now applied throughout Europe.

Consumers on both sides of the channel also risk losing out, as under this system the legal system used is based on where the consumer is based, allowing consumers to easily get legal remedy. Without this, consumers buying across borders will be at a serious disadvantage and will find it far harder to enforce their rights.

The damage will not just be inflicted on UK based businesses and consumers. Those based in the EU will also suffer significantly and needlessly if there is no agreement on this point.

All trade needs a secure legal system to underpin it. We have one which already exists, and which works well. This hugely benefits businesses and if the UK does not have access to it, it will significantly increase the cost and reduce the amount of trade that will take place between the EU and UK.

The British government has recognised the benefits which comes with staying in the system. Switzerland, Iceland and Norway want the UK in the system. We urge the European Union to recognise this and ensure that the UK can swiftly accede to the Lugano Convention. In doing so cross border trade, which already faces significant challenges post Brexit, will at least be underpinned by a common legal system for civil and commercial trade.

Daniel Dalton – CEO

As part of the VAT consequences of the departure of the UK from the EU, Belgian VAT authorities have officially communicated to business their position as to the need for UK established companies, that currently are VAT registered in Belgium via a direct VAT registration, to appoint an individual fiscal representative as a result of Brexit.

The letter of the Belgian VAT authorities confirms that UK established taxable persons will have to fulfil the VAT obligations which are imposed on all VAT taxable persons who are not established in the EU. The most significant VAT obligation is the requirement to appoint an individual fiscal representative for VAT in Belgium.

Because of the general nature of this obligation, UK established companies will no longer be able to operate a direct VAT registration as from the date Brexit will be effective, in principle 30 March 2019.

To discuss this, please feel free to get in touch with Peter Empsten (details below) and ensure your business meets this new administrative formality. Peter will also be able to share a letter from the Belgian VAT authorities outlining the change.

Peter Empsten – Head of Indirect Tax

Crowe VAT Representation 

E-MAIL : peter.empsten@crowe.be

Although those headlines that tell you robots are going to steal your job can be disheartening, the overarching message that came from last week’s panel was a positive one. Though the term Artificial Intelligence may seem scary, the panel reminded us that we actually already use A.I everyday – when we search Google, choose from recommendations on Netflix or Spotify or find more similar products on Amazon. Overall, the discussion made it clear that as automation advances, it will be the most human-centric skills that become the most valuable.

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On the 12th February, our Chief Executive Glenn Vaughan chaired an expert panel discussion on automation at The British School of Brussels, in collaboration with AmCham Belgium. Discussing the ‘Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: workforce transitions in an age of automation’ McKinsey Global Institute report from 2017, the panel provided a great insight for the future workfoce – the students from BSB and other local schools – as well as the current one – parents and corporate representatives from across Brussels.

Key note speaker Jacques Bughin, Director of MGI and co-author of the report, gave the message that instead of fearing this new technology and worrying about what jobs it might take away, it is better to view these new advancements as opportunities and seize each one. Jacques’ confidence that it is not that today’s jobs will all disappear, that instead they will transition as they have done in the past and it is up to us to decide how these transitions unfold, was an aspirational takeaway for the audience.

Catherine Stewart, Senior Advisor at Interel Group, was clear that there are still ways to stay ahead of the automation trend. Though machines and A.I are advancing in cognitive tasks related to memory and learning new information, they lack our people skills and emotional intelligence. Catherine’s advice to the future workforce, and also to the current one, is “learn to be clear, constructive, creative and adaptable, learn to listen and to challenge in a positive way” in order to thrive.

‘The high-skill, high-pay jobs of the future may involve skills better measured by EQs (a measure of emotional intelligence) than IQs’

Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England

Angela Dong, Senior Vice President Human Resources, Research & Innovation, Solvay, is witnessing the A.I transition first hand, and advised the audience that in fact, not everyone needs to master the potentials from A.I and new technology, but to stand out you will need to understand what it is that it can help you achieve.

Melanie Warnes, Principal and CEO of The British School of Brussels, concluded the panel discussion in agreement with the other panellists that the way the future workforce interact with each other, human to human, will be crucial, and that an optimistic view on the topic remains important.

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Though automation may be on the rise, the take home message of the night was to take a positive outlook – the robots won’t beat us yet!

‘The future is not predictable, it is to be shaped’

Jacques Bughin

 

 

The chamber kicked off 2019 by discussing the state of play in three different areas, welcoming high-level and expert speakers.

With Kris Dekeyser, Director “Policy and Strategy” at DG Competition at the European Commission, we tackled merger policy.  As the trends have shown the number of merger notifications submitted to the Commission has been increasing over the last years, with 2018 witnessing the highest number of notifications ever. While those were concentrated in some sectors at first (e.g. pharma), they then expanded to other sectors and will continue to increase for the coming years. To read more about this event, click here.

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Next, with Gunnar Hökmark MEP we looked at the conclusions drawn from the Banking Union. In response to the crisis, a number of initiatives were put in place (the Single Rulebook in particular) in order to strengthen financial stability, and ensure that the banking sector is safe, reliable, and better supervised for the single market. Our report on the event can be found here.

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On a totally different note, we then tackled the curious case of the Border in the Case of a No Deal Brexit with an expert panel, and learned that in the UK alone, there are up to 250,000 companies that only trade within the EU. Each one of these companies will need to consult a customs specialist in order to ensure they have the right certification when the UK begins to trade with the EU from the outside. However, a key issue lies with the amount of customs experts that exist, as it takes up to 3 years to become a fully trained and operational customs specialist. To read more about this pertinent topic, click here.

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To make sure you don’t miss out on an event in the future, visit our website to see what we have coming up.

Stay tuned for our next monthly overview!

Bernada Cunj

Head of Policy and EU Affairs

The British Chamber of Commerce | EU & Belgium

Youth political engagement is vital for the future of Europe. Democratic participation can take many different shapes, each act adding up to something greater. Citizens are taught from a young age that in life there are rights and responsibilities. But what modern tools can they use to accomplish these responsibilities in an effective manner?

Voting is a perfect example of one such tool – at a certain age (18 in most Member States, but 16 in some), people receive the right to vote, which is a responsibility to express their opinion and enjoy the features of a participative democracy that their ancestors fought for securing. The involvement in this process is sometimes perceived as being obsolete or uncool by young people, but do they know anything about the voting advice applications?

One such application being the newly designed electoral exercise that VoteWatch Europe has developed. Based on the voters answers to a set of questions, the application helps them discover a candidate or a party that best matches them. If this idea interests you, give it a try and play the game! (Preferably before the elections :D)

How should young people get involved?

It is important for young people to engage with politics. Fortunately, there are several tools that they can use to do this. The first step is to inform themselves. In an era of fake-news spreading with the speed of the internet, reliable information is increasingly harder to find. This happens especially in the case of political discourse: false information and misconceptions are constantly spread by politicians seeking office, or seeking to remain in office, as well as by various interest groups hoping to benefit themselves.

Young people have the responsibility to make informed choices and share the knowledge they acquire with their peers.

In the increasingly digitalized age, it is important to have access to objective information and a platform to provide it, such as VoteWatch Europe.

What VoteWatch Europe is?

VoteWatch Europe is a platform for political engagement aimed to deliver objective and factual information on the positions of politicians in the European Parliament, as well as the Council with regards to all issues debated at a European level. By merging sophisticated statistics with insights from politicians, institutions’ staffers and top notch independent researchers, VoteWatch Europe provides the public with real-time, data backed analysis and forecasts on European and global developments.

For instance, their latest insights revolve around which EP political groups are labeled as ‘fake’ and why those labels persist.

VoteWatch Europe identifies the political groups with the lowest cohesion through a practical and objective political affinity measure, which increases transparency.

This information is particularly relevant to knowing more about the true nature of the politicians that represent their electorate in the European institutions’ decision-making process.

What other tools can they use?

In addition to various informative reports, VoteWatch is also helping increase youth political engagement, having designed, along with five European organizations, a multilingual digital platform, YourVoteMatters. YourVoteMatters aims to serve as a communication tool between the 2019 candidates in the European elections and their electorate. This is achieved by including a series of policy debriefings, as well as a survey-like option that enables the electorate to find out which MEP or new candidate their views most align with.

Along these lines, the European institutions have also recently acknowledged the importance of engaging youth in politics. As another tool for this purpose, a campaign called ‘This time I’m voting’ has been created. The campaign has the sole purpose of energising young voters and including them through sharing various videos and articles featuring citizens expressing their reasons for getting involved and voting in the European elections.

Youth participation is critical to the future well-being of Europe. There are several tools that can be used in order to achieve this and organisations like VoteWatch are here to contribute.

All that is left for young people to do is engage and change Europe for the better.

 

The chamber’s young professional network, Brussels New Generation, is hosting a Lunch and Learn with VoteWatch Europe on the 25th February, on finding reliable information on the political stances of EU decision-makers and understanding the evolving regulatory landscape after the upcoming EU elections.

For more information and to register, click here.

 

One of the British Chamber’s task forces is the Tax, Finance and Legal (TFL) task force. Its members include representatives of large to medium size accounting and tax firms, law firms, and some of the largest banks.

The Tax, Finance and Legal task force delivers regular seminars on practical tax, financial, economic and legal issues and updates for (international) businesses operating in Belgium.  These seminars offer British Chamber members the opportunity to showcase their expertise to a wide network of business professionals. Seminars hosted in 2018 included:

 

  • Politics and economics collide: Looming crisis or myth? – An informative presentation outlining how political developments such as Trump’s policies and Brexit will impact business operations and opportunities in Belgium, UK and broadly in Europe.P1010244.JPG
  • Masterclass in cross-border estate planning – At this event we heard how to plan your estate like an expert, and how you can save on Belgian and overseas inheritap1010376nce tax.
  • Are you or your employees working in different countries? Here is what you need to know – For anyone who frequently operates in multiple countries, or manages employees who do so, this seminar gave advice on the best solutions for any tax, social security and labour law issues they might face

 

 

 

 

 

The Tax, Finance & Legal task force also oversees the chamber’s annual Expat Financial Affairs conference, allowing expats to listen to informative presentations on investments, pensions, self-employment and estate planning, and mingle with fellow expats over food and drinks.

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Although of course Brexit and facilitating business with the UK are an important part of our agenda, the TFL activities are still aimed at a much larger group of international companies and expats in Belgium.

Since we want to focus on topics that are of interest to our members, please let the TFL task force know about any tax, finance or legal topic you would like to see covered. Or if you would like to get actively involved in an event, please propose topics you would be interested in driving by contacting the team

 

We look forward to hearing from you.

 

Marc Verbeek, Tax Partner, Crowe Spark & Chair, Tax, Finance and Legal Task Force

from Helena Raulus of the UK Law Societies

As the debate in the UK Parliament on the ratification of the draft Withdrawal Agreement begins, it is a useful time to analyse the consequences of the adoption (or non-adoption) of the Agreement from a legal perspective.

If the Agreement is not ratified, the main concern is that this could lead to a ‘no deal Brexit’, whereby the UK exits the EU without concluding any overarching deal (or deals) with the EU.

Due to the very different legal mechanisms governing international rules on trade and other areas of cooperation, both the UK and EU will face a distinct fork in a road at the end of March next year.

Ratification of the Agreement will ensure on the one hand that the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019 and, on the other hand, that its departure takes place in an orderly manner. The Agreement sets out the framework that provides for a transition period, during which time negotiations for a new EU-UK relationship can take place, in addition to new agreements with third countries.

The ratification also guarantees the package of rights for UK citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK, as well as the Northern Irish backstop after the transition period (the backstop will become applicable only if the new agreement requires specific measures to be taken).

A ‘no deal Brexit’, in contrast, will bring an immediate end to EU-UK cooperation and the existing legal framework. The trading and legal relationship will change abruptly and the UK will revert to a third country framework, where there are no special trade agreements to facilitate relations.

The pressing question in this situation is: what can be introduced quickly to help the continuation of trade and cooperation between the UK and EU?

The first question is whether the Withdrawal Agreement could be applied in parts in this situation. It would be useful to mitigate against the worst effects of a ‘no deal Brexit’. However, this is doubtful as in this situation Article 50 will have run its course and will not be applicable anymore.

In this scenario a new UK-EU agreement would need to be negotiated under the rules set out in the EU Treaties. This comes with the consequence in that if a matter falls under national competences, the new agreement will need to be ratified not only by the EU itself but also all of the member states. This would be case in particular with regard to the transition period, as it aims to replicate the full EU legal framework, and deeply covers both EU and member state competences. The Treaties are clear in that, for example, internal market rules fall under mixed competences, not under exclusive EU competences.

Consequently, any measures taken will need to be assessed through the prism of who has the power to adopt the initiatives agreed. This leaves three options.

The first is where the EU and UK can take unilateral measures to facilitate trade in a ‘no deal Brexit’. For example, the EU has the power to declare adequacy or equivalence with regarding to passporting for financial services and data flows.

However, where there is a requirement of reciprocity, things may not be so straight-forward. This is the case for example in relation to visas, where the EU declared that is willing to waive visas for UK citizens, but only if the UK does not require EU citizens to apply for visas.

Then there are areas where a specific agreement between the parties is generally required to provide for reciprocity.

It is possible to conclude an agreement between the EU and the UK, or between an EU member state and the UK. It is also possible to conclude a mixed agreement, where the EU, the member states and the UK are all parties to the agreement.

The quickest form of agreement to ratify is one where there is an agreement between the EU and the UK. This type of agreement requires a reading in the European Parliament and the member states to sign off in the Council. However, this process can be used only where the EU has exclusive competence – for example with regard to the trade in goods and services, but not internal market access, for example.

In all other cases, where the EU does not have exclusive competence, it is possible to work out bilateral agreements with the member states. It would be possible to make a mixed agreement with the EU and all the member states, but the negotiations of these agreements are complicated, not to mention the ratification which usually takes at least a couple of years. Therefore, bilateral negotiations may be the quickest route should the UK find itself in a ‘no deal’ scenario.

However, it must be kept in mind that any bilateral negotiations cannot breach or infringe upon the exclusive competences of the EU. Trade in goods and transport are of particular interest here, as one of the crucial priorities in a no deal situation would be to ensure that food and medicines can reach the UK market.

As a result, the consequences of a ‘no deal Brexit’ would set the UK on a very difficult and radically different path compared to that of the Withdrawal Agreement. This is a path from where it will take time to recover and reach the agreements needed to fully resume trade between both blocs.

A version of this article has also been published in the November edition of the UK Law Societies’ Brussels Agenda.

We talk to Helena Raulus of the UK Law Societies, Chair of our Single Market Task Force and member of the EU – UK Future Relations Committee

What are your biggest priorities at the moment?

As Head of the UK Law Societies’ Brussels Office, my daily work revolves mainly around Brexit right now. I have a particular expertise on the different forms of EU cooperation in judicial matters and the functioning of mutual recognition within the Single Market. Of course this has a special relevance now , as the UK and EU are currently in the act of re-defining the structure of their relationship.

The discussions in the Single Market Task Force support my work, as many of the EU internal market developments will still be of great relevance to UK lawyers and their clients who operate in the EU.

What single market issues are on the table now?

The tax transparency and fairness, and the anti-money laundering initiatives are of particular interest to the legal profession, and to businesses operating in a cross-border context. Both the EU and the UK will try to maintain an open and well-regulated digital economy, which means that there will be further proposals on data transfers, data localisation or blockchain technology.

What should we be looking out for?

Both sides will have to examine how to regulate the platforms of the sharing economy: are these really new forms of doing business? Or are they just extensions of a franchise-type of activity where the same mechanisms of employment or the provision of services for money take place? If so, how can the current regulations apply to these new businesses?

Given that these challenges are the same both for the EU and the UK, and that it is foreseeable that the EU and the UK economies will be linked for the coming decades (regardless of the shape of the ultimate deal), it is useful for me to participate not only in the Brexit discussions, but to be aware of the developments in the single market more generally. This is something that the Task Force provides me with, as I have access to its members’ broad expertise.

How do task forces work? How can members get the most out of them?

The job of the chair and vice-chairs is help ensure that the chamber’s meeting programme is really valuable to members. We advise on the priority issues for business, who are the key players and what are the key points in the decision-making process. That way we can say who members need to talk to, about what, and when.

Any member can influence our programme by letting us know what’s important to them. Drop us a line here, or talk to me or a member of the chamber team!

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