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Brexit trade talks hit by fresh dispute over state aid

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A row over Brussels’ €750bn Covid recovery package has become a sticking point as UK trade talks go to the wire, after Boris Johnson warned that EU-level spending should not be exempt from state-aid restrictions in a post-Brexit agreement.

Mr Johnson’s concerns over EU state-aid policy have increased the late-stage brinkmanship over a trade deal, adding to fears that a longstanding row over fishing access could yet derail an agreement, and a renewed sense of gloom in London.

On Thursday evening, the UK prime minister and Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, held a stocktaking call on the talks. Both sides “welcomed substantial progress on many issues”, according to a statement issued by Ms von der Leyen.

But the president acknowledged that “big differences remain to be bridged, in particular on fisheries”. She added: “Bridging them will be very challenging. Negotiations will continue tomorrow.”

The UK’s assessment of the call was bleaker. A government spokesperson said that Mr Johnson had told Ms von der Leyen that “the negotiations were now in a serious situation”. 

Some “fundamental areas remained difficult” on the issue of fair competition between EU and UK companies, the UK spokesperson said. On fisheries, Mr Johnson had made clear that the EU position was “simply not reasonable and, if there was to be an agreement, it needed to shift significantly”.

Mr Johnson told Ms von der Leyen that he would not accept a Brussels demand for EU fishing boats to be given guaranteed access to UK waters for eight years, according to officials.

The UK has offered a transition that would ensure that EU boats could continue to fish in the country’s waters for three years, with pre-agreed quota rights, after Britain leaves the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy on January 1. Britain’s stance has been that, after that period, access should depend on successful annual negotiations.

But EU leaders, including France’s Emmanuel Macron, who on Thursday also tested positive for Covid-19, have said this would not provide enough medium-term certainty for their national fleets.

Mr Johnson also warned Ms von der Leyen that EU-level spending, including the Covid recovery fund agreed by the bloc’s 27 leaders earlier this year, could not be exempt from enforceable principles on state aid that would be set out in the trade deal.

Brussels has argued that such spending should not be bound by the common principles, because EU-managed programmes, such as regional aid funds, are exempt from the bloc’s state-aid rules. Britain has maintained that this line of argument is irrelevant in the context of an international agreement.

The EU’s recovery fund will involve an unprecedented amount of borrowing by the commission to support economies struck by the pandemic.

“If the EU decided to put money into developing electric cars, for example, using this fund, it would totally distort the level playing field and we would have no right to retaliate,” said one British official close to the talks.

An EU official said the state-aid dispute was being solved.

Money markets remain convinced there will be a deal in time for the end of the year, when Britain will leave the EU single market and customs union. The pound rallied as investors rushed to bet on a deal, putting the currency on course for its best week since March. 

Markets had responded positively earlier on Thursday to comments by Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator, about “good progress”, although he said some “last stumbling blocks” remained.

Meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, put MPs on standby for an emergency sitting next week to approve a deal. The European parliament wants a deal agreed by this Sunday to allow it to ratify it before the end of the year.

Some British officials warn of the risk of “an accidental no deal” if Mr Johnson and the EU, especially Mr Macron, misunderstand each other’s room for manoeuvre.

Mr Johnson has told colleagues he is “not bluffing” about taking Britain out on January 1 without a deal, unless the EU softens its demands on fisheries and state aid.

Officials in Downing Street say that Mr Johnson is relaxed about the talks failing, joking that British people will be “eating fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner” when the UK takes back control of its fishing grounds.

The prime minister is also said to have added to his repertoire of Australian songs — a reference to what he calls an “Australian-style” no-deal exit — humming “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” in his office.

Mr Johnson’s allies say that EU leaders would be mistaken if they thought he would be back in Brussels next year seeking a deal, if Brexit ends in acrimony on January 1. “He won’t be going near the place,” said one official.



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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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