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Construction sector warns rising costs will eat into EU recovery plan

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Construction industry executives across Europe have warned that “dangerous” price rises and shortages of many building materials risk undermining the EU’s flagship €800bn economic stimulus programme.

The EU construction sector generates almost 10 per cent of the bloc’s economic output and vast infrastructure projects make up a sizeable proportion of Brussels’ recovery fund, which will distribute grants and loans to rebuild member states’ economies after the Covid-19 pandemic.

But prices of construction materials from steel and wood to concrete and copper have begun to rise sharply in recent weeks as the economic rebound both in Europe and elsewhere — including the US and China — triggers a building boom.

According to the European Construction Industry Federation (FIEC), bitumen prices have risen 15 per cent in only three months, cement prices were up 10 per cent in a single month and wood prices were up over 20 per cent.

Public infrastructure projects usually impose penalties on builders for delays, while contractors often have to bear the cost of unexpected price increases.

Domenico Campogrande, director-general of FIEC, warned that the price rises and extra delays risked diluting the impact of the EU funds.

“The danger is that we have this big EU recovery plan but if 30 to 40 per cent of these funds are absorbed in extra financial instruments to cover the higher prices, it would be a real nonsense as it won’t go into the real economy,” he said. 

In a recent letter to the European Commission, the FIEC expressed “alarm” at the price rises and shortages of materials, including a more than doubling of the Italian price of steel bars used to make reinforced concrete in four months to March. 

“This phenomenon is jeopardising the construction sector’s contribution to economic recovery and is threatening the potential impact of European recovery programmes,” it said.

In Italy — the biggest beneficiary of the stimulus cash from Brussels — the government is planning to spend more than €100bn of its EU funding on building new infrastructure over the next five years. But the construction sector has warned officials that it will struggle to rise to the challenge without major reforms.

“We are facing shortages of many basic materials for construction and this is very dangerous as Italy is being hit harder than the rest of Europe,” said Flavio Monosilio, research director at ANCE, the association of Italian construction companies. “This crisis is at the heart of the new EU recovery plan.”

Line chart of Price indices rebased in US dollar terms showing Construction materials prices soar

Construction executives blame several factors for the bottlenecks, including the sharp rebound in demand which has outstripped the supply of materials in many countries, as well as pandemic-related disruption to supply chains and continued trade tensions.

Some materials have been hit by additional problems such as a bark beetle infestation that has hit wood production, and delays in the redistribution of unused steel.

Thomas Birtel, chief executive of Austrian construction group Strabag, said price rises had “increased tremendously in the last two weeks” and the company had to “report delays on individual construction sites because the material is simply no longer available”. 

Strabag, which built the Copenhagen Metro in Denmark and the Limerick Tunnel in Ireland, operates its own concrete and asphalt plants, but Birtel said: “Construction is a small-scale business and it is not even possible to control the supply chains for all building materials.”

In Germany, 44 per cent of construction companies surveyed by the Ifo Institute in May reported problems procuring materials on time, up from less than 6 per cent in March.

“We haven’t seen a bottleneck like this since 1991,” said Felix Leiss at Ifo. “This evidently caused construction activity to slow down in April, at least temporarily.”

Production in the German construction industry fell 4.3 per cent in April from the previous month, despite companies in the sector reporting a record order backlog of €62bn in March.

“Many producers are unable to supply the materials before the end of the year and that’s a real problem,” said Stephan Rabe at the German construction industry association. “A lot of money is going into public and private sector construction projects in the US and China and that is sucking up a lot of materials. Wood is being produced in Germany and exported to the US, so it is in short supply here.”

Some German politicians have called on Berlin to seek temporary EU export restrictions on wood and other materials.

As the US government prepares to launch a $1.7tn infrastructure programme and the global economic rebound is expected to gain pace, the pressures are expected to remain high in the coming months.

“It will take time to go back to normal — at least the end of the year,” said Campogrande.

Some countries, such as France and Germany, have responded by easing the rules on some public sector construction contracts, waiving fees for delays and compensating contractors for unforeseen price rises.

Monosilio said Rome was yet to offer any relief to the sector, which has been battered by a decade-long fall in public infrastructure investment, a lack of funding from banks and long delays in project approvals and payments.

Italy’s prime minister Mario Draghi has said the “destiny of the country” depends on the success of a €248bn package of investments and reforms mostly funded by the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Plan. It includes investment in high-speed train lines, renewable energy facilities, smart electricity grids and energy efficient buildings. 

EU states have a poor record in distributing funds; in the six years to 2020, they on average only spent just over half the money they were allocated by Brussels. 

Without reforms to address the Italian construction sector’s problems, Monosilio said similar problems could bedevil the EU’s recovery spending efforts.

“The Draghi government absolutely wants to improve the situation,” he said. “[But] it is a sword of Damocles hanging over the whole European project.”



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Europe

End of an era as Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona part company

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Lionel Messi updates

Barcelona football club said on Thursday that Lionel Messi, widely regarded as one of the greatest of all players, is leaving because of “financial and structural obstacles” that it blamed on financial regulations imposed by La Liga, which runs the top two divisions in Spain, requiring the team to rein in its spending.

Messi, the frontman of FC Barcelona’s success for more than a decade, will be leaving a club where he has spent the entirety of his career, winning every leading trophy and personal accolade.

Messi and Barcelona had intended to sign a new contract on Thursday but ultimately the player and club were forced to separate, said Barcelona in a statement, adding that both sides “deeply regret” their split. La Liga declined to comment.

“Despite FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi having reached an agreement and the clear intention of both parties to sign a new contract today, this cannot happen because of financial and structural obstacles (Spanish Liga regulations),” Barcelona said. “As a result of this situation, Messi shall not be staying on at FC Barcelona. Both parties deeply regret that the wishes of the player and the club will ultimately not be fulfilled.”

Messi’s exit comes as Barcelona and rivals Real Madrid are at loggerheads with La Liga over the Spanish league’s plan to partner with private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, which plans to invest €2.7bn in the league, subject to clubs’ approval.

The exit of the superstar Argentina international, who earned a total of more than €555m between 2017 and 2021, according to Spanish newspaper El Mundo, underlines the financial pressures at Barcelona.

The Catalan club sunk to a net loss of almost €100m in the 2019-20 season, the first to be disrupted by the pandemic, as revenues of €855m fell short of the €1bn set in its budget. Its debt has soared north of €1bn. In June, the club approved a €525m debt refinancing.

On the pitch, Barca finished third in La Liga, its worst showing since 2008. It has not won the Uefa Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious club tournament, since 2015.

The decision comes just days after Barca president Joan Laporta said the club “have to make sure” Messi stays and that the process was “on the right track”. The president had also called for “greater flexibility” from La Liga.

Despite the long affiliation between Messi and Barcelona, the player last year told the club he wanted to leave but ultimately decided to stay on to avoid a legal dispute.

Messi’s departure comes a day after La Liga agreed a €2.7bn deal with US private equity group CVC Capital Partners to buy a minority stake in a new entity that would manage broadcast, sponsorship and digital rights for the league.

Barcelona and arch-rivals Real Madrid, which have been embroiled in a dispute with La Liga over plans for a breakaway European Super League, would stand to receive about €260m each from the deal with CVC.

The transaction was partly seen as a way to win over the support of Barcelona, which has been financially constrained by La Liga’s rules from making any high-profile acquisitions or renewal of contracts.

Real Madrid also lashed out at the CVC deal with CVC on Thursday, questioning its legality and accusing the Spanish league of negotiating the agreement without the club’s knowledge.

Barcelona followed up later on Thursday by joining Real in condemning La Liga’s planned partnership with the buyout firm. The club said: “FC Barcelona feels it is inappropriate to sign a half-century agreement given the uncertainties that always surround the football world. The terms of the contract that La Liga is describing condemn FC Barcelona’s future with regard to broadcasting rights.

“FC Barcelona wishes to express its surprise at an agreement driven by La Liga in which the teams’ opinions, including those of FC Barcelona, have not been taken into account.”

Spanish football clubs have yet to vote on the CVC agreement. Italy’s top football league, Serie A, turned down a similar agreement a few months ago.



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Europe targets adolescents for Covid jabs to curb Delta spread

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Covid-19 vaccines updates

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose habitual garb in public is a dark suit and tie, switched this week to a black T-shirt to encourage the young to get vaccinated over the holidays. 

“Many of you have questions or are scared,” Macron said in one of several videos he posted on TikTok and Instagram from what seemed to be the presidential holiday residence in southern France. “So I’ve decided to answer your questions directly. Go ahead.”

He has also posted short videos to correct misconceptions about the vaccines and France’s supposedly “freedom-killing” insistence on health passports to access bars and other public places. “Vaccination saves lives, the virus kills — it’s as simple as that,” he said in one. 

Macron may be one of the EU’s more visible leaders to urge the young to be jabbed, but he is not alone. 

On Wednesday, the UK belatedly extended its Covid-19 vaccination programme to 16- and 17-year-olds. But across continental Europe, governments from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean have already been targeting as yet unvaccinated teenagers to fight rising infections and hospitalisations driven by the highly infectious Delta variant of the virus.

This vaccination drive, which anticipates the new school term starting in September, is partly why Europe has already overtaken the US in terms of vaccination rates per 100 people and, on current projections, will soon overtake the UK too.

In France, health ministry data show that more than 40 per cent of those aged between 12 and 17 have already received one jab, and nearly 20 per cent are fully vaccinated. (In the vulnerable age group between 70 and 80, full vaccination coverage is close to 90 per cent.) 

Chart showing that Europe and the US have already vaccinated millions of teens, leaving the UK far behind

Most Nordic countries have also started to vaccinate teenagers and, by the end of July, almost one-third of 12-15 year-olds in Denmark had received at least one jab. “We need the immunity of the population, especially before a winter season,” Soren Brostrom, head of the Danish health authority, said in June when announcing the decision.

Much the same is true in Germany, where more than 900,000 adolescents or 21 per cent of those aged between 12 and 17, have received at least one jab, and more than 10 per cent are fully vaccinated. 

Individual German parents and children already have had the legal right to get vaccinated since June, and several states had begun limited offerings of the jabs to 12-17-year-olds.

But health minister Jens Spahn announced on Monday plans to offer more jabs to youngsters before school begins. “This is absolutely not about applying pressure,” he said on RBB radio. “It is about giving those who want to be vaccinated, including children and adolescents, the opportunity.”

The next step in Europe will be to vaccinate young children, especially as Delta strain infections seem to be rising fastest among the unvaccinated young. In a recent UK study, almost a third of the positive Delta variant tests came from people aged 5 to 17.

“It’s clear that children under 12 will become the main reservoir of infections once a large share of the over-12 population is vaccinated,” said Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva. 

“It seems reasonable today to suppose that we’ll only be able to finish with this pandemic by vaccinating a very large share of the population, perhaps 90-95 per cent, by including children,” he said, noting that the jabs would have to be supplemented by other measures such as continued border controls as well.

In Spain, which has already overtaken the UK and the US in vaccinating its population, the government says its inoculation drive must now focus on younger people. 

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has declared that the country, where 59 per cent are fully vaccinated, deserves “the gold medal for vaccinations”. This week he said the country was on course to fully vaccinate 70 per cent of its population before the end of August.

But officials increasingly recognise that will not be enough to provide “herd immunity”. Infection rates in Spain — now in its fifth coronavirus wave — remain extremely high, with cases particularly prevalent among people in the 12-19 and 20-29 age groups; in the former, the full vaccination rate is less than 4 per cent.

High infection rates among these groups — with a 14-day rate of above 1,300 per 100,000 people — have spilled over to older groups. The 14-day rate among the over-eighties has been close to 300, even though according to official figures that age group is 100 per cent vaccinated.

“What is happening in Spain shows quite simply that the vaccinations do not have the same efficiency that was indicated in the trials . . . It is going to be more difficult to reach herd immunity,” said Rafael Bengoa, a former Basque region minister for health and director at the World Health Organization. 

He said the Delta variant — now accounting for more than 75 per cent of Spanish cases — was a key factor blunting vaccines’ impact and argued that the necessary level of protection would now probably require full vaccination for closer to 90 per cent of the overall population.

“We are only going to achieve this when we have revaccinated older people who are losing protection relatively quickly and when we have vaccinated young people and children,” he said. “The end is further away than we predicted.”

Additional reporting by Richard Milne in Oslo





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Global house prices: Raising the roof

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Global house prices: Raising the roof



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