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Europe’s retailers fret over crucial Christmas period as lockdowns bite

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At this time of year, Jens Begeschke would normally be preparing to sell his range of handmade paper lanterns to glühwein-drinking customers at dozens of Christmas markets across Germany. 

But the second wave of coronavirus infections and lockdowns has led to the cancellation of almost all of Germany’s 3,000 festive markets, wrecking Mr Begeschke’s plans and throwing the fate of thousands of businesses such as his into doubt.

“We ordered the products from our suppliers in India in February: we could not have anticipated the impact of the virus then,” said the 48-year-old, who has run Sterne vom Himmel — Stars from Heaven — for the past decade.

Although he has also been selling via his website for several years, Mr Begeschke doubts online orders will make up for the loss of the majority of his business that usually comes at this time of year. “We’re totally reliant on the Christmas markets. I worry our suppliers might go bankrupt if we don’t order anything next year,” he said.

Across Europe, retailers are pleading for governments to lift lockdowns to save the crucial shopping period between the Black Friday promotions on November 27 and Christmas. These four weeks generate 20-50 per cent of annual sales for many non-food retailers, according to Eurocommerce, the EU retail trade association.

Chart showing retailers have rebounded but critical Christmas period looms

The latest lockdowns, which have closed non-essential shops in a host of European countries and restricted movement and social interactions, would make this year “particularly challenging”, said Christian Verschueren, Eurocommerce director-general. 

Smaller retailers “will struggle to survive any extended period of lockdown”, he warned. “Some of our members are predicting up to 30 per cent of clothing shops, who depend particularly on the Christmas period, will never open again.”

La Fée Qui Cloche, a toy store just north of Montmartre in Paris, is another business confronting huge challenges. Miya Pellissard-Yadan, its owner, said she was extremely angry that hers and other non-essential retailers had been forced to close as part of France’s lockdown. “It’s just horribly unfair,” she said.

The shop would usually make 15 per cent of its annual sales in November and a further quarter in December, Ms Pellissard-Yadan said.

Visitors walk along the boulevard Unter den Linden in the German capital Berlin © Maja Hitij/Getty
Shoppers browse among Christmas trees and decorations at Piazza Mercato in Naples, Italy © Ciro Fusco/EPA/Shutterstock

But banned from admitting customers, she has instead cobbled together a click-and-collect system for them to call or text their orders and pick up. But she has no illusions that this will compensate for the lack of footfall. “Buying a stuffed animal for a child online makes no sense. People want to touch it,” she said.

Retail sales in the eurozone fell by a record 21 per cent in the two months after the pandemic hit in March, before rebounding quickly back above last year’s levels once the initial lockdowns were lifted. The biggest year-on-year growth has been in mail order and internet sales as consumers shift spending online.

However, eurozone retail sales started falling again in September as the second surge in the virus gathered pace. Most economists expect the autumn lockdowns to cause a much bigger drop in sales after a survey of purchasing managers in October pointed to reduced activity at many services businesses. The EU consumer confidence indicator for November, published on Friday, is expected to fall to its lowest level since May.

Some believe vaccine breakthroughs announced this month by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna will provide sufficient hope to allow many shops, restaurants and other customer-facing businesses to keep struggling on for better times ahead.

“It’s a really grim outlook,” said Anatoli Annenkov, economist at French bank Société Générale. “But with the vaccine on its way, there will probably be enough investment to keep most of these businesses going.”

A closed Christmas market stall in Potsdamer Platz, Berlin © Maja Hitij/Getty
A shop window decorated for Christmas in Paris © Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Mohaba, which makes glühwein mugs for Christmas markets across Germany and around the world, is counting on a coronavirus treatment after sales plunged three-quarters this year, forcing it to postpone a €3m investment in a new production facility.

“The straw I’m clutching at is the Covid-19 vaccine,” said Guido Schlepütz, who runs the company. “If it’s available in the first quarter and there are no further lockdowns . . . [it will determine] whether we will have our life as before the pandemic.”

In Italy, retailers remain closed in most regions until at least early December, while average household Christmas expenditure is set to fall 15 per cent this year, according to the Codacons consumer association. “Santa’s sleigh will be lighter this year as many families begin to feel the squeeze of the Covid-19 crisis,” said Carlo Rienzi, Codacons president.

With many people continuing to work from home, restricted in their ability to travel or socialise, a surge in online sales is predicted alongside higher demand for computing equipment, fitness trackers and gadgets. GfK, the research company, forecast these trends would help keep Black Friday sales stable at about €1tn this year in the 70 countries it tracks — after growth of 20 per cent last year.

Total spending on Black Friday and Cyber Monday in Germany

But this shift is likely to primarily benefit larger retailers with a bigger online presence. Fnac Darty, the French electronics, books and music chain, said it expected to fare better in the second lockdown than the first because its stores remained open for essential sales and its online service was proving popular, said Enrique Martinez, chief executive.

Some products would also sell regardless, he said, such as the new Sony PlayStation 5 console released this month. “A passionate gamer is not going to wait till the end of lockdown to get his PS5,” he added.

At La Fée Qui Cloche in Paris, Ms Pellissard-Yadan pointed to another bright spot amid the gloom: sales of board games. Everything from classics such as Scrabble and chess to newer games including The Mind had been flying off the shelves, she said.

“Everyone is bored at home,” she added ruefully.

Additional reporting by Alexander Vladkov in Frankfurt



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German ruling party backs Laschet as candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor

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Armin Laschet has won the backing of Germany’s governing Christian Democratic Union in his bid to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, after a campaign that exposed deep rifts in the party five months before national elections.

Thirty-one of 46 members of the CDU’s executive committee backed Laschet in a secret vote, with his rival, Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, receiving just nine, according to the party. There were six abstentions.

The result means Laschet is all but certain to be the centre-right’s candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election, when Merkel will bow out after 16 years as Germany’s leader.

Söder, who is leader of the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, had said he would accept a clear vote in favour of Laschet.

But the ballot revealed deep misgivings among senior Christian Democrats about Laschet’s suitability to run. The party executive had given its unanimous backing to his candidacy last week, but he garnered just 77.5 per cent of the vote, with 22.5 per cent going to Söder.

Laschet, 60, was elected CDU leader in January. But he has struggled in the polls, and many in the CDU/CSU bloc thought they had a better chance of winning the election with Söder as their candidate.

The chaos within the ruling party has also reflected its performance in the polls. The CDU surged to almost 40 per cent last year as voters rewarded it for Germany’s deft handling of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

But its approval rating has slumped in 2021 as public anger mounted over the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations and the revelation that some MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks.

The CDU also faces a strong challenge from the opposition Greens, which some pollsters believed could take the chancellery in the election. The party chose Annalena Baerbock, a 40-year-old MP, as its candidate for chancellor, in a smooth process that marked a sharp contrast with the open power struggle in the CDU/CSU.

The son of a miner, Laschet studied law and edited a Catholic newspaper before being elected to the Bundestag in 1994. He served as a minister in the government of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, in the 1990s and became prime minister there in 2017.

Laschet is an ideological ally of Merkel and has said that if elected chancellor, he would continue her middle-of-the-road policies. He was long considered her natural successor.

But his popularity has suffered over the course of the pandemic, when he has come across as hesitant and erratic. By contrast, Söder, who earned a reputation as a decisive crisis manager, has seen his polling soar.

The poll ratings of Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, had soared, but he said he would respect the CDU executive committee’s decision ahead of the vote © Reuters

Laschet was endorsed on Monday by some of the CDU’s most influential grandees, such as Wolfgang Schäuble, the former finance minister and Bundestag president, Volker Bouffier, prime minister of the western state of Hesse, and Ralph Brinkhaus, leader of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group.

But other members of the executive, such as Peter Altmaier, economy minister and a close Merkel ally, favoured Söder, a move that will badly dent Laschet’s authority.

The prime ministers of Saxony-Anhalt and Saarland also broke ranks with Laschet in recent days and threw their weight behind Söder, saying he enjoyed far more support among the party’s rank-and-file members. The powerful youth wing of the CDU, the Junge Union, also backed the Bavarian.

Söder garnered support among many CDU MPs who fear they will lose their seats in September if Laschet leads the campaign.

Some attendees of Monday’s meeting said the CDU/CSU parliamentary group and regional party bosses should be involved in any decision on who should run for chancellor.

But Laschet insisted that only the executive could decide and demanded a vote to resolve the issue. “We should decide today, as we planned to at the beginning,” he said, according to participants.

Söder made clear he would respect the CDU executive’s decision, telling reporters this week he had made the party a proposal “but only the CDU can decide if it wants to accept this offer”.



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After Afghanistan, China and Russia will test Biden

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“America is back” proclaimed Joe Biden, a few weeks ago. But in Afghanistan, America is out. The US president has just announced the withdrawal of all remaining American troops from the country. A 20-year war will end on the symbolic date of 9/11, 2021.

The watching world will wonder if a gap is emerging between White House rhetoric about re-engagement with the world, and a reality of continuing retreat. Biden insists that this is not the case. He argues that America has achieved its counter-terrorism aims in Afghanistan and now intends to “fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20”.

But perception matters. The danger is that the pullout from Afghanistan will be seen outside America as a Vietnam-like failure that could eventually lead to the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, a replay of the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam in 1975.

Rival powers, in particular Russia and China, could now be emboldened to test the Biden administration’s resolve a little further. The obvious flashpoints are Ukraine and Taiwan. In recent weeks, the Kremlin has assembled more troops on its border with Ukraine than at any time since 2014 when Russia grabbed Crimea. Last week, China sent a record number of military jets into Taiwanese airspace. Both countries are combining military muscle-flexing with warlike rhetoric.

Biden himself has used confrontational language with Russia and China. He has called Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, a killer and his administration has branded China’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide. The US also recently imposed sanctions on Russian and Chinese officials and has eased restrictions on American officials meeting their Taiwanese counterparts.

The strategic situation in Asia and Europe is similar in one key respect. The US has expressed strong support for both Taiwan and Ukraine, but neither country enjoys an explicit American security guarantee. The US relies on a policy of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan. The idea is that China should understand there is a strong chance that the US would fight to defend Taiwan, without a firm promise being made. In a similar way, the US has never spelt out what it would do if Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Although Taiwan and Ukraine are separated by thousands of miles and involve different antagonists, the two stand-offs feel connected. Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to Nato, believes that: “Moscow and Beijing will look closely at how we react in one situation to set the stage for the other.” Daalder argues that “we need greater strategic clarity on what we would do if Russia moved militarily against Ukraine, or China on Taiwan”.

There are voices in the US calling for America to now make an explicit security guarantee to Taiwan, and for Nato to accelerate the process that would allow Ukraine to join its alliance. The hope is that these moves would deter Moscow and Beijing, and so reduce the risk of war starting by miscalculation. The argument against these policy changes is that China and Russia may interpret them as a threatening shift in the status quo — and feel compelled to respond. American allies in Asia and Europe may also feel that explicit security guarantees for Taiwan and Ukraine are too provocative. The joint statement issued by Biden and Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese prime minister, after a meeting last week, stressed the importance of peace in the Taiwan Strait, but remained vague about how Washington and Tokyo might respond if conflict broke out.

It would obviously be particularly difficult for the Biden administration to respond to simultaneous crises over Taiwan and Ukraine. Some western strategists are concerned that Moscow and Beijing may be co-ordinating their actions, to maximise the pressure on the Biden administration. They point to an increase in the frequency of high-level meetings between the Russian and Chinese governments. Beijing and Moscow also made statements, after a recent meeting between their foreign ministers, which signalled a deepening of their strategic relationship and a more open rejection of a western-led world order.

The internal situations in Russia and China may also be raising the dangers of conflict. Putin recently imprisoned Alexei Navalny, the most popular and dangerous opposition leader he has ever faced. Navalny is currently on hunger strike and may soon die, sparking further protests. The Kremlin knows that conflict over Ukraine boosted Putin’s popularity back in 2014. Another small war may look like a tempting option.

As the Chinese Communist party prepares to celebrate the centenary of its foundation later this year, President Xi Jinping may be looking for a triumph over Taiwan. American officials believe that Xi and his advisers have convinced themselves that the US is in deep and terminal decline. They fear that the Chinese leadership may believe the US would ultimately back down rather than fight over Taiwan.

But even the most confident and nationalistic officials in Beijing and Moscow will still be conscious of the risks of head-on confrontation over Taiwan and Ukraine. The likelihood is that Russia and China will continue to use “grey zone” tactics that stop just short of all-out conflict. As America discovered in Afghanistan, it is much easier to start a war than to control its outcome.

gideon.rachman@ft.com



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Alexei Navalny’s supporters say his life is ‘hanging by a thread’

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Supporters of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny have called on Russians to protest against his harsh treatment in prison, saying that it could end in his imminent death.

Leonid Volkov, who runs Navalny’s foundation from exile in Vilnius, Lithuania, said in a video message on Sunday that the anti-corruption activist’s life was “hanging by a thread” 19 days into a hunger strike in protest at the prison’s refusal to let him see a doctor of his choice.

“However we might want not to think about it, distance ourselves, or change the subject — it doesn’t change the fact that they’re killing Alexei Navalny. In the most terrible fashion. In front of all of us,” Volkov said.

“And the question rises before all of us, whether we want it or not: are we ready to do something to save the life of a man who’s risked his own for us for many years?”

Yaroslav Ashikhmin, a cardiologist, posted test results on Saturday that he said showed Navalny had heightened creatine levels that could bring about kidney failure, as well as potentially fatal levels of potassium that could cause a cardiac arrest at “any moment”.

The sharp deterioration of Navalny’s health comes as the Kremlin appears increasingly resolved to eliminate the threat from President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic.

Russian prosecutors said on Friday they would move to have Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and his network of regional offices declared an “extremist organisation”, an unprecedented step that would essentially shut down his operations while exposing his team to potential criminal prosecution.

Navalny’s supporters described the crackdown on their group and his harsh treatment in prison as a “desperate attack” by the Kremlin in response to Putin’s declining approval ratings amid a years-long economic decline.

“If we don’t speak up now, the darkest times for free people are at hand. Russia will descend into total hopelessness. Peaceful political activity in Russia will be impossible,” Ivan Zhdanov, the head of Navalny’s foundation, said.

Navalny’s team called for the protest — which they called “the final battle between good and neutrality” — to be held on Wednesday evening on a square outside the Kremlin. Putin is set to give his annual state-of-the-nation speech to Russia’s elite just a few hours earlier.

The rally will be a big test of support for Navalny — and the Kremlin’s willingness to crack down on it — after a heavy-handed police response forced them to abandon protests over his arrest in more than 100 cities this January.

Navalny, 44, was arrested at a Moscow airport in January immediately upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recuperating from a poisoning with the military nerve agent novichok.

He was then ordered to spend two and a half years in prison for missing parole meetings relating to a 2014 suspended sentence — including several while he was in a coma after the poisoning.

On Saturday, US president Joe Biden said Navalny’s treatment was “totally, totally unfair, totally inappropriate on the basis of having been poisoned and then on a hunger strike. Wrong”.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in Navalny’s poisoning, imprisonment, and the terms of his confinement.

“He will not be allowed to die in prison, but I can say that Mr Navalny, he behaves like a hooligan, absolutely,” Andrei Kelin, Russia’s ambassador to the UK, said in an interview with the BBC on Sunday. “His purpose for all of that is to attract attention for him.”

Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, told CNN on Sunday: “We have communicated to the Russian government that what happens to Mr Navalny in custody is their responsibility and they will be held accountable by the international community . . . [T]here will be consequences if Mr Navalny dies.”

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, tweeted on Sunday: “I am deeply worried about Alexei Navalny’s health. He must immediately receive access to proper medical treatment. The EU continues to call for his immediate and unconditional release.”

Leonid Volkov, left, and Ivan Zhdanov at a press conference
Leonid Volkov, left, and Ivan Zhdanov are calling for Russians to protest against Alexei Navalny’s harsh treatment in prison © John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

Last month, Navalny was moved to a prison colony with a reputation for its harsh treatment of detainees.

He went on hunger strike in late March in protest at wardens’ refusal to let him be treated by a doctor of his choice for severe nerve pain from two herniated discs in his back, as well as sleep deprivation tactics he said amounted to “torture”.

Navalny’s team is likely to face significant difficulties organising the protest after prosecutors deemed their organisation “extremist”.

That designation equates Navalny and his supporters with neo-Nazis, al-Qaeda and the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo. It means his foundation’s leadership could be jailed for up to 10 years and supporters could face as many as eight years in prison for donating to it, according to Pavel Chikov, head of Agora, a legal aid foundation.

Since Russia declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses an “extremist organisation” in 2017, 463 members of the Christian denomination have faced criminal charges, while police have searched 1,416 homes of members of the group, Chikov said.

Several of Navalny’s top allies are under house arrest on charges of violating public health rules by organising unsanctioned protests for his release in January.

Police have detained Zhdanov’s elderly father, as well as several employees at Navalny’s regional headquarters in recent weeks.

On Friday, a court also sentenced Pavel Zelensky, a cameraman for the foundation, to two years in prison for writing two tweets deemed “extremist”.





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