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Deadly attacks heighten fears of new European terror wave

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The deadly terror attack carried out by an Isis militant in Vienna this week that killed four people and injured 22 was the first such atrocity in Austria for a quarter of a century.

Following Islamist-inspired outrages in France and Germany, including the brutal killing of three people at a church in Nice, it has heightened fears that a new terror wave could be building across Europe.

The UK responded by raising its terror alert level to “severe” while the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency warned it was “highly likely” that extremists were plotting copycat attacks. Austria has sent the army to guard sensitive sites and France has more than doubled its military deployment to 7,000.

Security officials believe the resurgence of the threat is real, made more potent by the large number of European jihadis who have returned from Iraq and Syria or who sought to travel there. They have repeatedly warned about the danger from this group of extremists with proven terrorist intent.

“These attacks occurring closely one after the other raises questions about whether it is all just a coincidence,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a counterterror expert at the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

“The underlying problems which drive violent Islamist extremism have not gone away,” he continued. “There is the fundamental problem of radicalised people who joined Isis coming out of prison still radicalised.”

The Vienna attacker was one such offender. Kujtim Fejzulai was a 20-year-old Islamist extremist sentenced to 22 months in prison for attempting to travel to Syria to join Isis, but released in December after just eight months.

The Islamist extremist who killed the French teacher Samuel Paty last month had reportedly been in contact with an Isis fighter in Syria. The man suspected of stabbing a tourist to death in the German city of Dresden last month was a convicted Isis recruiter released from juvenile prison only five days earlier.

Before these attacks, jihadi terrorism across Europe appeared to be in decline. According to data from Europol, 21 Islamist terror attacks were made in 2019, down from 24 in 2018 and 33 in 2017. Isis propaganda appeared to lose momentum as its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria was recaptured, but recent events are reigniting the networks. 

One flashpoint was the decision in September by French magazine Charlie Hebdo to republish cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Mohammed to mark a new trial relating to the deadly 2015 terror attack on its offices. The subsequent anti-French campaign whipped up on social media was a force behind the Paris and Nice attacks, the authorities believe. 

An attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in September © Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty
Three people were killed in Nice in late October © Daniel Cole/AP

Long before these cartoons were republished, however, European security agencies were alert to the risk of attacks increasing again.

An estimated 5,000 Isis supporters left Europe to fight with Isis, but managing those who have returned — and others who were caught before they could travel — is a near impossible task. Austria’s intelligence and security service warned in a report last year that, despite fewer “jihadi travellers” returning to Austria than expected, they posed a “significant danger” that was “difficult to predict”. 

Rajan Basra, a terrorism expert at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London, criticises government efforts to counter the problem. The approach until recently was to get foreign fighters “off the street, put them in prison and then leave them there,” he said.

“Very little thinking was actually given as to what should be done in terms of their release and reintegration, and what you should do in terms of monitoring after they are out [of prison],” he added.

ICSR research also showed the tendency for foreign fighters — who were likely to have been prosecuted within a short timeframe and given similar sentences — to be released around the same time, which means juggling resources between multiple potentially dangerous individuals.

Of 196 terrorists convicted in France for offences relating to Syrian travel, 45 were due for release this year, 57 in 2021 and 46 in 2022, according to an ICSR report. Sweden has reported having 47 extremists behind bars who are not on life sentences, of whom nearly half were due to be released this year.

Mr Basra said the complicated task of deradicalising terrorists must involve a joined-up approach that combined monitoring by security officials with religious mentoring and input from social workers and criminal justice experts.

However, it is also notoriously unreliable. Usman Khan, a convicted terrorist jailed for his involvement in a plot to bomb the London Stock Exchange, killed two people in central London a year ago and just 11 months after his release from prison. Khan persuaded his mentors that he was a reformed character, and carried out his attack at a rehabilitation conference he had been invited to attend.

Karl Nehammer, Austria’s interior minister, told the Kurier newspaper this week that the Vienna attacker had “massively deceived all those who acted to the best of their knowledge and conscience to achieve his early release”.

The new terror threat has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has limited travel opportunities for terrorists and dramatically restricted the types of large gatherings they typically target. Ken McCallum, head of the UK domestic intelligence agency MI5, spoke of the difficulty of conducting surveillance when town centres had been emptied of people. 

The task now is to explore possible links between the recent terror incidents. “This might look like lone-wolf activity but there’s also a thread linking back to previous attacks,” one European security official said.

Mr Pantucci added that it was unclear how long the tendency to imitate other atrocities would last. “People who have intent but are wondering what to do and when . . . to strike are most likely to be inspired by seeing other attacks and copying them.

“The important question is, for how long does that copycat effect echo?”

Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin and Valerie Hopkins in Budapest



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FC Barcelona and Real Madrid will be forced to pay back illegal state aid

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FC Barcelona and Real Madrid will be forced to pay back millions of euros in illegal state aid after the EU’s highest court ruled Brussels was right to declare that beneficial tax arrangements they enjoyed for a quarter of a century were illegal.

The decision by the European Court of Justice upholds previous rulings by the European Commission and comes as Barcelona, the world’s highest-earning football club, is enduring one of the biggest crises in its history. 

This week police arrested the club’s former president, its current chief executive and its general counsel, in connection with a separate legal case ahead of a vote on Sunday to decide its next president. Barcelona, which recorded a loss of €100m last year, also has to contend with a debt pile of more than €1bn.

In 2016 Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition chief supremo, ordered four Spanish football clubs to pay back tens of millions of euros received since the 1990s in the form of sweetheart property deals, tax breaks and soft loans.

FC Barcelona subsequently contested the decision before the General Court, the EU’s second-highest tribunal, which annulled the commission’s judgment. However, after a final appeal from Brussels the ECJ ruled in favour of the EU.

In its decision on Thursday — which is final — the ECJ deemed the tax scheme “liable to favour clubs operating as non-profit entities over clubs operating in the form of public limited sports companies”, holding that it could therefore qualify as illegal state aid under EU rules.

The General Court had previously annulled Brussels’ decision over what it said was lack of sufficient evidence that the tax arrangements offered to the four football clubs, which also include CA Osasuna and Athletic Bilbao, were illegal.

But the commission had questioned the court’s “heavy burden of proof” on regulators in its appeal, arguing that a lower tax rate was obviously more favourable than a higher one.

The ECJ argued that the difficulty in assessing the extent of state aid — because of the complexity of tax deductions — did not preclude the commission from banning government practices that it considered gave sports clubs unfair advantages. 

It said: “The impossibility of determining, at the time of the adoption of an aid scheme, the exact amount, per tax year, of the advantage actually conferred on each of its beneficiaries, cannot prevent the commission from finding that scheme was capable, from that moment, of conferring an advantage on those beneficiaries.”

The Spanish government said on Thursday it had “absolute respect” for the court’s decision. FC Barcelona and Real Madrid did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The judgment will be seen as a big win for regulators in Brussels who have for years been trying to stop highly successful commercial clubs from freeriding on the back of taxpayers.

The European Commission said on Thursday it noted “the judgment by the Court of Justice to follow the Commission’s arguments”.

Thursday’s ruling is the second time Brussels has won an appeal of its state aid decisions in recent weeks. Last month judges at the General Court rejected a legal challenge by budget airline Ryanair to state aid given to rivals on discriminatory grounds.

At present Barcelona is dealing with the fallout of what the Spanish media dubs Barçagate — allegations, denied by the club, that it corruptly hired outside groups to defame former president Josep Maria Bartomeu’s adversaries on Facebook.

Bartomeu was temporarily detained by the Catalan police earlier this week. He, the club, and other individuals in the case, which is being investigated by a Barcelona court, have all denied any wrongdoing.



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Italy raises €8.5bn in Europe’s biggest-ever green bond debut

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Investors flocked to Italy’s inaugural environment-focused government bond offering on Wednesday, allowing the country to raise more than €8bn.

The banks running the issuance chalked up around €80bn in orders for €8.5bn of debt. It was the biggest debut sovereign green bond from a European issuer to date, according to Intesa Sanpaolo, which worked on the deal.

Other recent Italian bond sales have also attracted strong demand, after former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi became prime minister last month.

Demand for the debt highlights the popularity of green bonds, which provide funding for environmental projects and require borrowers to report to investors on how the funds are used. 

Tanguy Claquin, head of sustainable banking at Crédit Agricole, which was a co-manager on the transaction, said the sale was met with “very strong support” from investors, particularly those that are required to consider environmental factors in their portfolios.

The bond, which matures in 2045, was issued with a yield of 1.547 per cent. The underwriters were able to reduce the premium against a normal Italian government bond maturing in 2041 to 0.12 percentage points, a slimmer premium than the 0.15 points initially mooted.

Italy follows several European countries, including Poland, Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands, into the green debt market. France has issued 11 green bonds since 2017, totalling $30.6bn according to Moody’s Investors Service. Germany joined the market last year with two green Bunds. In its budget on Wednesday, the UK announced plans to sell at least £15bn of green bonds in two offerings this year. 

Italy is the first riskier southern-European government to tap the green market. The spreads on Italian debt relative to the eurozone benchmark German bonds fell to a six-year low of less than 0.9 percentage points in early February in a sign of investors confidence in Draghi’s leadership of the EU’s third-largest economy. The spread widened during last week’s volatile bond market trading but remains low by recent standards.

Spain plans to follow Italy with a green bond offering in the second half of 2021. Analysts expect an initial €5-10bn sale at a 20-year maturity. Johann Plé, senior portfolio manager at AXA Investment Managers said the demand for Italy’s sale “should reinforce the willingness of Spain and others to follow suit.”

Plé said the price investors paid for the Italian green bond “remained fair” and that this “highlights that strong demand does not necessarily mean investors have to pay a larger premium”.

Green bonds often command higher prices, and therefore lower yields, than their conventional equivalents from the same issuer. The German green Bund currently trades with a “greenium” around 0.04 to 0.05 percentage points, roughly double the gap when it was initially issued, according to UniCredit analysis, while French government green debt is roughly 0.01 percentage points lower in yield than conventional bonds.

Italy’s pitch on the environmental impact and reporting of its green projects drew positive reactions from some investors. Saida Eggerstedt, head of sustainable credit at Schroders, which invested in the bond, said the details provided on projects including low-carbon transport, power generation, and biodiversity were “really impressive”.



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German regulator steps in as Greensill warns of threat to 50,000 jobs

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Germany’s financial watchdog has taken direct oversight of day-to-day operations at Greensill Bank, as the lender’s ailing parent company warned that its loss of $4.6bn of credit insurance could cause a wave of defaults and 50,000 job losses.

BaFin appointed a special representative to oversee Greensill Bank’s activities in recent weeks, according to three people familiar with the matter, as concern mounted about the state of the lender’s balance sheet.

The German-based lender is one part of a group — advised by former UK prime minister David Cameron and backed by SoftBank — that extends from Australia to the UK and is now fighting for its survival.

On Monday night Greensill was denied an injunction by an Australian court after the finance group tried to prevent its insurers pulling coverage.

Greensill’s lawyers said that if the policies covering loans to 40 companies were not renewed, Greensill Bank would be “unable to provide further funding for working capital of Greensill’s clients”, some of whom were “likely to become insolvent, defaulting on their existing facilities”.

In turn that may “trigger further adverse consequences”, putting over 50,000 jobs around the world at risk, including more than 7,000 in Australia, the company’s lawyers told the court.

A judge ruled Greensill had delayed its application “despite the fact that the underwriters’ position was made clear eight months ago” and denied the injunction.

Greensill Capital is locked in talks with Apollo about a potential rescue deal, involving the sale of certain assets and operations. It has also sought protection from Australia’s insolvency regime.

Greensill was dealt a severe blow on Monday when Credit Suisse suspended $10bn of funds linked to the supply-chain finance firm, citing “considerable uncertainties” about the valuation of the funds’ assets. A second Swiss fund manager, GAM, also severed ties on Tuesday. Credit Suisse’s decision came after credit insurance expired, according to people familiar with the matter.

While the bulk of Greensill’s business is based in London, its parent company is registered in the Australian city of Bundaberg, the hometown of its founder Lex Greensill.

In Germany, where Greensill has owned a bank since 2014, BaFin, the financial watchdog, is drawing on a section of the German banking act that entitles the regulator to parachute in a special representative entrusted “with the performance of activities at an institution and assign [them] the requisite powers”.

The regulator has been conducting a special audit of Greensill Bank for the past six months and may soon impose a moratorium on the lender’s operations, these people said.

Concern is growing among regulators about the quality of some of the receivables that Greensill Bank is holding on its balance sheet, two people said. Regulators are also scrutinising the insurance that the lender has said is in place for its receivables.

Greensill Bank has provided much of the funding to GFG Alliance, a sprawling empire controlled by industrialist Sanjeev Gupta.

“There has been an ongoing regulatory audit of the bank since autumn,” said a spokesman for Greensill. “This regulatory audit report has specifically not revealed any malfeasance at the bank. We have constructive ongoing dialogue with all regulators in all jurisdictions where we operate.”

The spokesman added that all of the banks assets are “unequivocally” covered by insurance.

Greensill, a 44-year-old former investment banker, has said that the idea for his company was shaped by his experiences growing up on a watermelon farm in Bundaberg, where his family endured financial hardships when large corporations delayed payments.

Greensill Capital’s main financial product — supply-chain finance — is controversial, however, as critics have said it can be used to disguise mounting corporate borrowings.

Even if an agreement is struck with Apollo, it could still effectively wipe out shareholders such as SoftBank’s Vision Fund, which poured $1.5bn into the firm in 2019. SoftBank’s $100bn technology fund has already substantially written down the value of its stake.

Gupta, a British industrialist who is one of Greensill’s main clients, separately saw an attempt to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars from Canadian asset manager Brookfield collapse.

Executives at Credit Suisse are particularly nervous about the supply-chain finance funds’ exposure to Gupta’s opaque web of ageing industrial assets, said people familiar with the matter.

The FT reported earlier on Tuesday that Credit Suisse has larger and broader exposure to Greensill Capital than previously known, with a $160m loan, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Additional reporting by Laurence Fletcher and Kaye Wiggins in London



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