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Europe’s far right is often its own worst enemy

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In or out of government, Europe’s rightwing populists are not having a good pandemic. One reason is their trademark scorn for expertise, which enthuses a minority of voters but unsettles many more who are worried about their health and livelihoods. But a deeper cause is the special talent that the populists display for embroiling themselves in unsavoury scandals and internal disputes.

The latest two examples concern the Netherlands and Estonia. Since the start of the year, the ruling coalitions in The Hague and Tallinn have collapsed in circumstances that do not reflect well on the countries’ mainstream political parties. Yet in neither capital are rightwing populists likely to be the beneficiaries.

The Dutch government resigned after it emerged that tax officials had falsely accused thousands of parents of defrauding the state to obtain child benefit payments. Perhaps the bleakest aspect of this affair was that some ministers in prime minister Mark Rutte’s government encouraged the Dutch bureaucracy’s hunt for phantom welfare cheats. In this way, they inverted the informal rule of 21st-century European politics: that large numbers of citizens distrust governments. They demonstrated that governments are more than capable of distrusting citizens.

However, the welfare scandal appears to be having little impact on the popularity of Mr Rutte’s VVD party, which enjoys a commanding lead in opinion polls ahead of parliamentary elections on March 17. Nor is it boosting the Dutch far right.

Four years ago, it was a different story. The shock of the UK’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s US election victory in 2016 caused mainstream politicians in Europe to fear an extreme rightwing upset in the Dutch election of March 2017, setting a dangerous precedent for France’s presidential contest and Germany’s Bundestag elections later that year.

Once the Dutch establishment dyke withstood the radical right’s onslaught in 2017, there was a palpable sense of relief in EU capitals. Today there is little anxiety about the upcoming Dutch election. To an extent, this is because of the spectacular implosion of Forum for Democracy, a far-right movement that burst on the scene in 2016-2017 and was the big winner of the Dutch provincial elections of March 2019.

FvD is in turmoil partly because its members have always been prone to infighting, and partly because the Dutch media has recently exposed outrageous cases of racism and anti-Semitism in the party. In addition, Thierry Baudet, the party’s founder, has misjudged the public’s mood with petulant denunciations of the government’s lockdown measures during the pandemic.

True, FvD’s self-destruction clears space on the political spectrum for Geert Wilders, the veteran far-right campaigner, and his PVV party. But whereas in 2017 the PVV was top of most opinion polls two months before election day, now it trails Mr Rutte’s party by at least 10 percentage points. Mr Wilders’ anti-EU, Islamophobic message seems to be less effective at a time when the eurozone financial crisis and migrant emergency of 2010-2015 are receding in the memory.

Estonia’s government collapsed this month because of a corruption scandal related to a property development in Tallinn. A criminal investigation is focused partly on an associate of finance minister Martin Helme, the leader of Ekre, a far-right party that served in the ruling coalition. But the bigger problem for Ekre is that, since entering government in 2019, its behaviour has tarnished Estonia’s image as the poster child of liberal democracy in the post-communist Baltic region.

Martin Helme, leader of the Estonian far-right party Ekre is also the country’s finance minister © Postimees Grupp/Scanpix Baltics

Some politicians in Ekre and many activists in Blue Awakening, the party’s youth movement, embrace white supremacist language and imagery with unabashed enthusiasm. As if this were not bad enough, Mart Helme, father of Ekre’s leader, resigned in November as Estonia’s interior minister after attacking US president-elect Joe Biden as “corrupt”. Coming from a politician in one of Europe’s smallest countries, which borders Russia and depends on Nato and the US security guarantee for its defence, it was an extraordinarily irresponsible statement.

At the moment, Ekre lies third or fourth in opinion polls. However, mainstream Estonian politicians are likely to think twice before offering the far right a share of power again.

Austria may offer a parallel. The far-right Freedom party served in a coalition government in Vienna from 2017 to 2019 before ensnaring itself in a tawdry financial scandal. Voters punished the party in Austria’s subsequent election. It may be premature to write off the European far right altogether, but at present it is doing a perfectly good job of discrediting itself.

tony.barber@ft.com



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Numis sets out EU ambitions after record results

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Numis has picked Dublin for its new EU office to target European clients cut off by Brexit rules after the London-based broker posted record results for the first half of its financial year.

Numis said initial public offering volumes over the six months to the end of March were at their strongest level “for many years”, helping to more than double revenues in its investment banking division to £82m. The company advised on flotations including Moonpig and Auction Technology Group during the period. 

Overall revenue rose almost two-thirds to £115.4m, while pre-tax profit increased more than fivefold to £39.3m. 

Numis said mergers and acquisitions had also started to recover, driven by domestic and international buyers identifying attractive investment opportunities as the economic impact of the pandemic on the UK market eased. The broker is advising property group St Modwen on a £1.2bn takeover approach from Blackstone announced on Friday morning.

Alex Ham, co-chief executive, said activity for the rest of the year looked strong, with a number of IPOs and deals expected.

Some of these are likely to be European IPOs, despite the fact Numis has been unable to market to EU clients since the UK left the trading bloc. 

Numis has relied on so-called reverse solicitation — in effect, requiring EU clients to approach the broker for help — but plans to open a Dublin office next year to ramp up growth across Europe. Brexit had caused a reduction in institutional income from EU-based clients over the six-month period, it said.

“This is a departure for us in expanding beyond the traditional UK market,” said Ross Mitchinson, co-chief executive. “Dublin is a real focus for us to much better attack the European market.”

Mitchinson said EU regulators were being “tough but fair” about requirements on opening the office. “They want to see a well-capitalised business.”

The UK government and regulators have launched a series of consultations and proposals to deregulate and streamline rules to help British financial services groups after losing easy access to EU markets and clients.

But Mitchinson said these had not made much difference so far to Numis, adding that he did not “see the point” of a recent push to reduce the impact of Mifid II rules on research for small companies. “Institutions will not take a different approach,” he said. 

Numis will move to a new London office in September, which has been reconfigured with additional “Zoom rooms” to reflect the push for more flexible working in a future split between the office and home. 

Ham said he expected Numis staff to aim for two to three days a week in the office, with less need for international travel. But he added that many at Numis would be led by the needs of their clients, rather than any prescriptive working arrangement.

The average market capitalisation of its clients has almost doubled, in part owing to the rebound in the FTSE and a focus on “growth stock” clients such as Asos and Ocado. Numis also stopped working for businesses in the natural resources sector last year — partly owing to environmental, social and governance concerns about mining and oil — but these also tended to be smaller clients.



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Angela Merkel rejects US move to waive patents on vaccines

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Angela Merkel has expressed opposition to the Biden administration’s proposal to suspend intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, saying it would have “serious implications” for vaccine production worldwide.

The German chancellor said the limiting factors in vaccine supply were “production capacities and the high quality standards, not the patents”.

“The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and it must remain so in the future,” she added.

Merkel was responding to President Joe Biden’s top trade adviser Katherine Tai who said that while the US “believes strongly” in IP protections, it would support a waiver of those rules for Covid-19 vaccines.

A waiver would allow any pharmaceutical manufacturer in the world to make “copycat” vaccines without fear of being sued for infringing intellectual property rights.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Tai said in a statement on Wednesday.

The US would “actively participate” in negotiations at the World Trade Organization to hammer out the text of a waiver, she added, noting that those discussions would take time given the complexity of the issues involved.

Washington’s proposal has put the EU on the back foot. In recent months the bloc has resisted a push led by India and South Africa within the WTO for a vaccine patent waiver.

The US move received a cool response from Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president. She said the EU was “ready to discuss” how the proposal could help address the current crisis “in an effective and pragmatic manner”.

But she also insisted the priority was for vaccine-producing countries to lift barriers to exports and address supply chain interruptions.

Von der Leyen contrasted the EU’s approach with that of some allies: “Europe is the only democratic region in the world that exports vaccines on a large scale.” The US, a large vaccine-producing country, has reserved most of its homegrown jabs for domestic use.

The US proposal received a more positive response from Vladimir Putin, who said Russia, which manufactures the Sputnik V vaccine, would support the move. “A pandemic is an emergency situation . . . No doubt, Russia would support such an approach,” the Russian president said.

China’s foreign ministry said it looked “forward to having active and constructive discussions with all parties under the WTO framework in order to reach an effective and equitable agreement”.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, said he was open to the idea of a waiver of IP rights, but “the reality is that the bottlenecks today are not price, or the patents”.

“You can transfer the intellectual property to pharma companies in Africa but they have no platform to make mRNA vaccines,” he said.

The idea of a waiver is also opposed by BioNTech, the German start-up whose joint venture with Pfizer brought the first messenger RNA-based vaccine to the market. The company said it would not ease current supply shortfalls and warned of the risks of opening up manufacturing to producers with no mRNA experience.

“Together with Pfizer, we are also working with various organisations to support the supply of vaccines to populations worldwide. And we will continue to provide low or lower middle-income countries with our vaccine at a not-for-profit price,” BioNTech said in a statement on Thursday.

“However, patents are not the limiting factor for the production or supply of our vaccine . . . The manufacturing process of mRNA is a complex process developed over more than a decade.”

Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s chief executive, said the vaccine makers would have vastly expanded their capacity before any new players could make a real difference to supply. 

“If you were to start today, you’re going to have to start by hiring people. Those vaccines don’t fall from the sky,” Bancel told the FT US Pharma and Biotech Summit on Thursday. “There is no mRNA industry . . . When we hire people that come from traditional pharma, we have to train them in the art of mRNA.”

Matthias Kromeyer, a general partner at the venture capital firm MIG, one of BioNTech’s earliest investors, said a patent waiver would discourage future investments in the sector.

“If the US/EU/WHO suspend patent protection, they will lose a lot in the long run — namely the willingness of private investors to invest in such companies, many years before it is clear whether their technologies will succeed or not,” he said.

“This would mean the collapse of an entire industry that has just demonstrated it is the only one that can deliver a sustainable solution for this global medical, economic and social crisis. Without private investors, this innovative power will no longer exist in the future — what will we do then?”

The chief executive of Bristol Myers Squibb described the US government’s support for waiver as “very concerning” during an interview at the FT US Pharma and Biotech Summit on Thursday.

“Our industry depends on intellectual property protection in order to invest in R&D and make the investments needed to address crises like Covid,” Giovanni Caforio said. “The developments of the past 24 hours are very concerning and disappointing.”

As well as being important during the coronavirus crisis, Caforio said that IP protection is “critical for some of the areas of higher medical need where BMS invests like cancer care”.

Additional reporting by Leila Abboud in Paris

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UK ends damaging post-Brexit clash over status of EU envoy

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UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab has finally ended a corrosive diplomatic dispute over the status of the EU’s ambassador in London, a stand-off that had added to post-Brexit tensions.

Raab had previously refused to grant João Vale de Almeida full diplomatic status after Brexit took effect on January 1, arguing the EU was an “international organisation” not a state.

Brussels retaliated by shutting Britain’s head of mission to the EU, Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, out of key meetings with EU officials, adding to Brexit tensions on trade and Northern Ireland.

But on Wednesday the issue was settled after a meeting between Raab and Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief.

Officials briefed on the deal said Vale de Almeida would now receive the same diplomatic recognition as his counterparts in EU missions in all other world capitals, including Washington and Beijing.

In a joint statement, issued at a G7 meeting in London, Raab and Borrell said they had reached an agreement based on “goodwill and pragmatism” on an establishment agreement for the EU delegation to the UK.

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While Vale de Almeida will enjoy full ambassadorial status, British officials said Raab had secured a deal “which gives us some of what we want” regarding the legal situation of EU staff in London.

EU officials will enjoy a largely similar status to other diplomats but with some downgrades: notably, under the agreement, they will not have immunity from prosecution for road traffic accidents.

Raab insisted on this carve-out following the death of Harry Dunn, a British motorcyclist killed in 2019 in a collision with a vehicle driven by Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US diplomat. She returned to the US claiming diplomatic immunity. 

But many British diplomats were dismayed at how long it had taken to resolve the dispute. “It was a stupid thing to do in the first place and we’ve had to back down,” said one former ambassador.

The diplomatic rapprochement was hailed in Brussels as a sign of a “new cycle” in UK-EU relations following the European parliament’s formal ratification last month of the trade deal between the two sides, which took effect on January 1.

There has also been a thawing in relations over the management of tensions in Northern Ireland, as London and Brussels look for ways to soften border checks on goods coming from the British mainland to the region.

Vale de Almeida will now get to present his diplomatic credentials to the Queen — an honour not available to the heads of international missions.

Boris Johnson has never recognised the EU as equivalent in status to a national government but Number 10 insiders insisted that the Foreign Office — not the prime minister — was responsible for the diplomatic dispute.

Meanwhile, Ireland and the UK announced plans for the first meeting in two years of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, a structure created under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for the two countries to liaise on issues around Northern Ireland. 

“We are aware that there are sincerely held concerns in different communities in Northern Ireland in relation to a number of issues and firmly agree that the best way forward is through dialogue and engagement,” said Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis and Ireland’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney in a joint statement after they met in Dublin on Wednesday afternoon.

The meeting will take place in June, ahead of the July marching season in Northern Ireland, which could inflame tensions between unionists — who feel that their region’s status in the UK is under threat from post-Brexit trading arrangements — and nationalists, who are pushing for a vote on a united Ireland. 

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