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Berlin museum reignites debate over Germany’s colonial past

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The opening of Europe’s biggest cultural project in the heart of Berlin was meant to be a moment to celebrate the city’s cosmopolitan confidence. Instead, the Humboldt Forum museum has found itself at the centre of an increasingly toxic debate about colonialism and looted art.

Housed in a reconstructed royal palace, the €644m museum was designed as a new focal point for the German capital. It had the potential to “electrify the whole city, like the Centre Pompidou did with Paris in the 1970s”, said Monika Grütters, Germany’s cultural secretary. She will be one of those inaugurating the forum on Wednesday, in an opening ceremony which, thanks to coronavirus, will be digital-only.

Its centrepiece will be a display of 20,000 priceless objects drawn from the collections of Berlin’s Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art. The organisers are hoping to create a “dialogue between world cultures” that will reflect Berlin’s reputation as one of Europe’s most open-minded, tolerant and diverse cities.

Horst Bredekamp, one of the Humboldt’s founding directors, said it was the first time that “non-European cultures were being placed at the heart of a nation in such a magnificent way”. 

But critics have drawn attention to the often problematic provenance of the ethnic treasures that will be on display. Nigeria last week demanded the restitution of the Benin Bronzes, a group of plaques and sculptures that once decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin and were looted by British forces in 1897.

“A lot of these objects were stolen, robbed, looted,” said Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, a Tanzanian activist and founder of the NGO Berlin Postkolonial. “Some were used in rituals and prayers — it is like taking the altar from a Catholic church.”

The forum is a reconstruction of the Hohenzollern Stadtschloss, or city palace, home to the Kings of Prussia and later the Kaisers of the German Reich. Considered one of Germany’s finest Baroque buildings, it was destroyed in Allied bombing raids in 1945 and its remains flattened by the East German communists in the 1950s.

They built a new “Palace of the Republic” — a vast modernist block containing the East German parliament as well as restaurants, shops, a disco and bowling alley. Found to be stuffed with asbestos, it was demolished in 2008, 18 years after German reunification.

But the decision to rebuild the Hohenzollern Stadtschloss in its stead, endorsed by the Bundestag in 2002, was contentious. “It is a Prussian Disneyland,” said Jürgen Zimmerer, a history professor at Hamburg University.

He said the project exemplified Germany’s failure to address its dark imperial past and colonial-era, such as the genocide of the Herero and Nama ethnic groups in what was then German South West Africa. “The Kaiser got his palace back, but there is still no memorial to the Herero and Nama,” said Mr Zimmerer.

The issue was thrust into the public eye in 2017 when Bénédicte Savoy, professor of art history at Berlin’s Technical University, quit the Humboldt’s advisory council, complaining that the organisers were not doing enough to expose the colonial history of the museum collections.

“You can’t just pretend these objects were dropped here by helicopter,” she told the Financial Times. “You have to explain how they got here, that they have a history.”

Since her departure, she said, much had improved. “The people running the Humboldt Forum now understand they have to engage with the issue of the collection’s past,” she said.

That comes through in the public messaging, with the museum’s website saying the displays feature a “critical examination of European colonialism” and “give voice to colonised people’s points of view”.

Regardless of the controversy, the museum on Unter den Linden, Berlin’s central avenue, will dominate the centre of the German capital. Built with 100,000 cubic meters of concrete and 20,000 tons of steel, it is a massive complex that includes public squares and thoroughfares. Planners say it will give Berlin an entire new quarter. A rooftop restaurant will offer spectacular views of the city.

Meanwhile, with its reference to the Humboldt brothers, two leading figures of the 19th century German enlightenment, the museum hopes to hark back to a period of the country’s history when the spirit of exploration and scientific inquiry reigned supreme.

That is precisely what bothers Mr Zimmerer. “It is trying to return us to the days when Germany was the country of poets and thinkers,” he said. “But it erases the time when we were judges and hangmen.”





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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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FT 1000: Europe’s Fastest Growing Companies

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The latest annual ranking of businesses by revenue growth. Explore the 2021 list here — the full report including in-depth analysis and case studies will be published on March 22



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