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Johnson threatens to use emergency powers to avoid barrier in Irish Sea



Boris Johnson has raised the stakes in a bitter dispute with Brussels over post-Brexit rules in Northern Ireland, warning he could invoke emergency measures to ensure there was no “barrier of any kind in the Irish Sea”.

Mr Johnson told MPs on Wednesday he would legislate if necessary or use emergency override powers — Article 16 in the Northern Ireland protocol, which forms part of the UK’s 2019 Brexit treaty with Brussels — to maintain the free flow of trade between Great Britain and the region.

“We do think it’s very important the protocol does not place unnecessary barriers — or barriers of any kind — down the Irish Sea,” he said during prime minister’s questions.

His comments have raised pressure on Maros Sefcovic, European Commission vice-president, to agree to demands from London and Belfast to soften the need for checks on trade across the Irish Sea.

Mr Sefcovic held talks on Wednesday with Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister; Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland first minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist party; and Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, deputy first minister.

In a joint statement issued late on Wednesday night after the virtual meeting, Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic “condemned unreservedly any threats or intimidation”, in a reference to problems faced by port workers at Belfast and Larne who feared they were being targeted. Checks on food and agriculture products were suspended in both places for a second day on Wednesday.

After a “constructive discussion amongst all parties”, Mr Sefcovic and Mr Gove “concluded that the UK and the EU would immediately work intensively to find solutions to outstanding issues”, the joint statement said.

The pair have agreed to keep in close contact and meet again in London next week.

British officials had said the meeting was a chance for Mr Sefcovic to hear directly from Northern Ireland’s political leaders.

Ahead of the meeting Mr Gove wrote to Mr Sefcovic warning that the commission’s handling of the Northern Ireland issue in recent days had seriously raised tensions in the region.

Mr Gove said he wanted “grace periods” to allow the free flow of trade in certain goods across the Irish Sea to be extended until January 2023, pending permanent solutions. The extra time would cover supermarkets and their suppliers, chilled meat products, parcels and medicines.

With some of the grace periods due to expire on April 1, the extensions would allow businesses that regularly send goods from Great Britain to the region much more time to adjust to the arrangements, which came into force at the start of last month.

The Northern Ireland protocol was a key part of Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal. To avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland it left Northern Ireland under EU customs rules and part of the single market for goods.

But Mr Johnson’s insistence that the UK should leave the bloc’s customs union and single market meant that new checks were needed on goods moving from Great Britain to the region.

Mr Sefcovic is under considerable pressure after the commission last week briefly invoked the Article 16 override mechanism to allow Brussels to block the shipment of vaccines from the EU into Northern Ireland.

The threat of border controls on the island of Ireland infuriated both communities in Northern Ireland. Mr Gove told Mr Sefcovic in his letter “the reaction was even more negative than I expected”.

Nationalists bemoaned the fact that Brussels wanted to reimpose a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, while pro-UK unionists urged Mr Johnson to use Article 16 to remove border checks for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Both the EU and UK are entitled to invoke Article 16 in the event of the Northern Ireland protocol causing “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.

The EU, which swiftly dropped its proposed use of the override clause late on Friday, had claimed there would be serious societal issues if the 27-member bloc did not have sufficient supplies of Covid-19 vaccines.

Mrs Foster has argued that the same societal problems were being stirred up by excessive bureaucracy on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, leaving unionists feeling cut off from another part of their own country.

Mr Johnson and Mrs Foster met earlier on Wednesday. Downing Street said the prime minister promised to do “everything we could to ensure trade continues to flow effectively right across our United Kingdom”.

The DUP, which wants “permanent solutions developed” to lift barriers to trade, said the prime minister’s timetable for resolving the issues was the end of March. “Sticking plaster solutions and grace periods that kick the can down the road will not solve these problems.”

The Irish government, meanwhile, signalled it was open to “flexibility” in implementing the protocol and the extension of grace periods.

But Simon Coveney, Irish foreign minister, dismissed a fresh push by the DUP to scrap the protocol outright. “Those who are calling for doing away with the protocol entirely, I think, are completely unrealistic. That is not going to happen,” he said.

At a closed-door meeting of EU ambassadors in Brussels on Wednesday, Ireland’s envoy said the commission’s decision to trigger Article 16 without warning had caused damage in Northern Ireland that could not be easily “drawn a line under”, said people familiar with the matter. “It was a serious mistake,” said permanent representative Tom Hanney. 

At the meeting, Mr Hanney asked the chief of staff to the commission’s president Ursula von der Leyen what Brussels would be doing to change its internal protocols to avoid such mistakes happening again, given that Dublin, London or Belfast were not notified of the measure.

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




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




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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EU plans digital vaccine passports to boost travel




Brussels is to propose a personal electronic coronavirus vaccination certificate in an effort to boost travel around the EU once the bloc’s sluggish immunisation drive gathers pace.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said on Monday the planned “Digital Green Pass” would provide proof of inoculation, test results of those not yet jabbed, and information on the holder’s recovery if they had previously had the disease.

“The Digital Green Pass should facilitate Europeans‘ lives,” von der Leyen wrote in a tweet on Monday. “The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad — for work or tourism.”

The plan, expected to be outlined this month, is a response to a push by Greece and some other EU member states to introduce EU “vaccination passports” to help revive the region’s devastated travel industry and wider economy. 

But the commission’s proposed measures will be closely scrutinised over concerns including privacy, the chance that even inoculated people can spread Covid-19, and possible discrimination against those who have not had the opportunity to be immunised.

In an immediate sign of potential opposition, Sophie Wilmès, Belgium’s foreign minister, raised concerns about the plan. She said that while the idea of a standardised European digital document to gather the details outlined by von der Leyen was a good one, the decision to style it a “pass” was “confusing”. 

“For Belgium, there is no question of linking vaccination to the freedom of movement around Europe,” Wilmès wrote in a tweet. “Respect for the principle of non-discrimination is more fundamental than ever since vaccination is not compulsory and access to the vaccine is not yet generalised.”

The travel sector tentatively welcomed the news of Europe-wide vaccine certification as a way to rebuild confidence ahead of the crucial summer season, but warned that regular and rapid testing was a more efficient and immediate way to allow the industry to restart.

Fritz Joussen, chief executive of Tui, Europe’s largest tour operator, said “with a uniform EU certificate, politicians can now create an important basis for summer travel”. But he added that testing remained “the second important building block for safe holidays” while large numbers of Europeans awaited a jab.

Marco Corradino, chief executive of online travel agent, said he feared the infrastructure needed would not be ready in time for the summer season: “It will not work . . . at EU level because it is too complicated and would not be in place by June.”

He suggested that bilateral deals, such as the one agreed between Greece and Israel in February to allow vaccinated citizens to travel without the need to show a negative test result, had more potential.

Vaccine passport sceptics argue it would be unfair to restrict people’s travel rights simply because they are still waiting for their turn to be jabbed. 

Gloria Guevara, CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council, said it was important not to discriminate against less advanced countries and younger travellers, or those who simply cannot or choose not to be vaccinated. “Future travel is about a combination of measures such as comprehensive testing, mask-wearing, enhanced health and hygiene protocols as well as digital passes for specific journeys,” she added.

A European Commission target to vaccinate 70 per cent of the bloc’s 446m residents by September means many people are likely to go through summer unimmunised.

While some countries around the world have long required visitors to be vaccinated against infectious diseases such as yellow fever, a crucial difference with coronavirus is that those inoculations are available to travellers on demand. 

Questions also remain about the risk of people who have already been vaccinated passing on coronavirus if they contract the disease.


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