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Vaccine cocktails cause headaches for Italy’s government

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Buongiorno and welcome to Europe Express.

Italian cocktails such as the Aperol Spritz are being enjoyed in many European capitals these sunny days, but mixing Covid-19 shots is proving a recipe with potentially toxic effects for the government of Mario Draghi. We will explore why recent flip-flops on this latest vaccination trend are dominating the political debate in Italy.

Sticking with toxic politics, an en masse resignation at the Oslo city council has highlighted the difficulties even respectable Nordic oil producing countries face in working out how to meet their international climate obligations.

As for the EU’s stalled Banking Union, the ball did not move yesterday because of multiple differences between eurozone finance ministers gathered in Luxembourg. Eurogroup chief Paschal Donohoe, who has been trying to land a “work plan” setting out how to advance the complex initiative, said it would take more time to agree the plan between member states and that he would return to the matter later this year. Here is a full rundown of why the project remains blocked.

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Toxic cocktail recipe

Mixing Covid-19 vaccines risks turning into a toxic cocktail recipe for Mario Draghi’s government, as an increasing number of Italians begin to shun immunisation, writes FT Milan correspondent Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli.

Italian authorities last week banned the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine for people younger than 60. At the same time, they sought to impose mRNA jabs, such as BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna, as the second dose for almost 1m people who had already received a first dose of the vaccine.

Both moves were prompted by the death of an 18-year-old woman (who allegedly suffered from low blood platelets) from a rare form of blood clot two weeks after receiving her first AstraZeneca dose.

But this latest change in guidelines sparked panic among the public, with thousands of people cancelling their vaccination appointments. Adding to the public scare was Marco Cavaleri, a senior European Medicines Agency official, who was misquoted in Italian media as saying that the AstraZeneca jab should be banned altogether.

The EU regulator reiterated this week that the advantages of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweighed the risks for all age groups.

Nevertheless, the Italian government has come under fire for failing to restrict it for younger people earlier and for continuing to give the public mixed messages on a vaccine that has been discontinued in several European countries and was banned for certain age groups in others months ago.

The idea of an obligatory cocktail of vaccines was met with strong opposition in Italy, where several regional governments signalled that they would not follow Rome’s orders and vowed to offer citizens an option for their second dose.

Yesterday, after an increasing number of people refused the vaccine cocktail and with only 24 per cent of the population fully immunised, officials in Rome suggested Italy might follow the “Spanish model.” Under that policy, people can still opt to receive their second AstraZeneca dose regardless of their age after signing a liability waiver in case of adverse effects. 

France has also approved mixing the AstraZeneca and mRNA vaccines for people under the age of 55, but it is not mandatory and applies to a smaller proportion of the population than in Italy.

Franco Locatelli, head of the health council, insisted preliminary studies showed mixing vaccines boosted the immune system’s response.

However, preliminary findings of a study published in The Lancet last month showed the vaccine cocktail amplified common side effects and therefore “might have some short-term disadvantages”.

The absence of unambiguous data on the effects of mixing led Italian commentators to harshly criticise the government’s decision and its poor communication on the AstraZeneca jab’s limitations.

Several analysts and politicians also claimed that the media had been sympathetic to Draghi’s government and the Covid-19 commissioner he installed, whereas the former prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, would have been “torn to pieces” had the same situation materialised. 

Italy’s decision to set up vaccination “open days” — where people as young as 16 could show up without a booking to be immunised with any vaccine available — also came under fire domestically and abroad.

How would you feel about being inoculated with two doses of different Covid-19 vaccines? Take our poll here.

Chart du jour: Inflation extremes

Line chart of Annual inflation (%) showing Eurozone inflation mostly trends upwards

The European Central Bank’s governing council meets on a hillside in Frankfurt today, with inflation targets one of the big issues on their agenda. Figures released for May showed inflation was on the rise across most of Europe, with Luxembourg recording an increase of 4 per cent. At the opposite end, Greece, hampered by low tourism numbers, is still recording negative inflation.

Norway’s Greens vs Big Oil

A fierce and sometimes surreal controversy has felled Oslo’s entire government, giving a taste of some of the debates that are likely to resurface in national elections in September, writes Richard Milne, FT Nordic and Baltic bureau chief.

The entire centre-left Oslo city council resigned in protest on Wednesday after a vote of no confidence in Green politician Lan Marie Berg, because of her failure to disclose a huge cost overrun in a new water pipeline for Norway’s capital.

Berg is one of the most polarising politicians in Norway, as her outspoken attacks on petrol cars and more have drawn a torrent of criticism, some of it heavily misogynistic and racist.

She is running for Norway’s national parliament in elections on September 13 that the centre-left opposition — of which her Green party is part — are on track to win.

But the controversy surrounding her underscored the difficulties that Norway, western Europe’s biggest petroleum producer, is experiencing in working out how to meet its climate obligations.

The International Energy Agency warned last month that there should be no new oil and gas exploration to reach the Paris agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C more than pre-industrial levels. But Norway’s main centre-left Labour party and ruling centre-right Conservatives have shown no desire to call time on the country’s oil industry.

The Greens have said they would not support any government that continues with oil exploration, but it is far from clear whether the party will gain enough votes to enter parliament. Many Norwegian voters appear put off by their tough rhetoric, with the Centre party — rivalling Labour as the biggest centre-left group — defending diesel cars popular with their mostly rural supporters.

The surreal aspect of the events in Oslo is that the same centre-left government is likely to be reborn without Berg, who wants to focus on her parliamentary run. That led the Centre party to accuse her of self-indulgence for not simply resigning and sparing the capital the spectacle of high political drama in the midst of a pandemic. It also demonstrated the divisions within Norway’s centre-left and the difficulties they could have in forming a coherent national government should they win in September.

What to watch this weekend

  1. Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic gives a speech today at the College of Europe on the EU’s post-Brexit relations with the UK

  2. The Conference on the Future of Europe holds its first plenary session tomorrow in Strasbourg

Smart reads

  • WFH future: Remote working is here to stay, with a majority of European office workers preferring it to the old way of going in to the office. A policy paper by Bruegel suggests the EU should set up a regulatory framework for hybrid working.

  • Gig workers: Self-employed, in fierce competition for orders, without social protection and subject to algorithmic bias — this is the experience of most delivery service workers in Europe. The Centre for European Policy Studies has published a report about the situation of digital platforms workers in all 27 EU countries over the past five years.

  • Flying green: FT travel editor Tom Robbins writes about his experience onboard the world’s fully electric two-seat plane, which was recently certified for commercial use in the EU market.

  • Axe the G7: A week after the G7 summit in Cornwall, economist Jeffrey Sachs argues that the format is outdated and consistently fails to deliver results — and should therefore be consigned to the history books. (PS)

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Are you enjoying Europe Express? Sign up here to have it delivered straight to your inbox every workday at 7am CET. Do tell us what you think, we love to hear from you: europe.express@ft.com.

Today’s Europe Express team: silvia.borrelli@ft.com, richard.milne@ft.com, david.hindley@ft.com, valentina.pop@ft.com. Follow us on Twitter: @silvia_sb_, @rmilneNordic, @valentinapop.





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Ransomware attacks rise despite US call for clampdown on cybercriminals

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Ransomware updates

In mid-June, US president Joe Biden held talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss a recent scourge of cyber attacks against the US, including by Russian-based criminal ransomware hackers. 

Biden has said he told Putin in no uncertain terms that “certain critical infrastructure should be off limits to cyber attack — period”. Nevertheless, data show that ransomware attacks continue apace, including in sectors such as healthcare and education. It is unclear whether Biden will take further action in light of this. 

Ransomware, which usually involves hackers seizing an organisation’s data or computer systems and only releasing access if a ransom is paid, has long plagued businesses large and small. The first known ransomware virus, PC Cyborg, was recorded in 1989, with victims infected via floppy disk and told to send a $189 cheque to an address in Panama.

Today, these financially motivated hacks are far more sophisticated — and are proliferating fast. Attacks have quadrupled during the pandemic, SonicWall data show, partly because the shift to remote working has left staff more vulnerable than if they were connecting to more secure corporate networks. 

Chart showing that ransomware attempts reached an unprecedented level in 2021

Additionally, hackers have swapped demanding cheques for requesting hard-to-track cryptocurrencies, meaning that as the price of bitcoin has risen during the past year, the business of ransomware has become all the more lucrative. It is also easier to launch attacks with little to no technical knowhow, given the growing market for “ransomware-as-a-service”, where hackers maintain their ransomware code but rent it out to others and take a cut of any extortion payouts. 

While known attacks have reached unprecedented levels, the story of what we do not know — given that there are few rules around disclosure — may be far worse. Earlier this week, Bryan Vorndran, assistant director of the FBI Cyber Division and other cyber agency officials called for mandatory reporting rules around attacks, so that accurate data can be gathered and analysed by the US government.

Chart showing the median size of companies targeted by ransomware (number of employees)

Small businesses with little spare resources have tended to be the hardest hit by ransomware attackers. But the matter was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year after several audacious attacks on critical infrastructure such as the Colonial Pipeline, which led to fuel shortages for several days on the US east coast, the Irish health system and Brazilian meat supplier JBS. All of these attacks were believed to originate from Russia-based ransomware hackers, although the US government has accused Chinese state-backed groups of also orchestrating attacks.

The number of ransomware gangs stretches into the dozens and continues to proliferate as the economics remain so profitable. Vorndran said the FBI tracked 100 gangs, using an algorithm to rank them and the effect that each has on the economy. The largest one rakes in an estimated $200m a year in revenues, he said.

Chart showing that ransomware demands can often be negotiated down

To help victims fight the gangs, a cottage industry for “ransomware negotiators” has emerged. These middlemen are tasked by victims with haggling down the ransom payments. As go-betweens, they also collect data on attacks, learning the playbooks of various groups in order to best know how to speak to them. 

According to data from Coveware, the average ransom payment has fallen in the second quarter to $136,576, from more than $200,000 in the first quarter, amid an emergence of smaller ransomware groups. But in the majority of attacks — about 80 per cent — hackers are using the newer tactic of threatening to leak data as extra leverage in extorting victims. About half of these “leak threat” victims paid out in the second quarter, Coveware said.

Chart showing publically reported ransomware attacks on US healthcare, public, state or local government and schools, by month

Unfortunately, the negotiators’ services continue to be in high demand. According to data on reported attacks collated by Recorded Future, in the US there have been 10 attacks on healthcare, nine on schools and 10 on public state and local government groups during June and July this year. Despite Biden urging Putin last month to crack down on the criminal groups and warning against attacks on 16 critical entities, attacks on many of these key sectors have continued.

“The volume of targeted attacks on government organisations and enterprises that impact civilians, countries and the global economy will not end without a change in approach,” said Bill Conner, the chief executive of SonicWall.



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France delays EDF reforms after failure to agree terms with Brussels

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EDF updates

France has been forced to delay the restructuring of state-owned utility EDF after it failed to agree the terms with the EU, a setback to a major economic reform promised by President Emmanuel Macron.

“Significant progress has been made in our discussions with the European Commission, but to date we have not reached an overall agreement,” said a government official. “Therefore it is not possible to submit a draft law to parliament if the principle points of the reform have not been agreed to in advance.”

Jean-Bernard Lévy, EDF chief executive, on Thursday declined to provide a specific timetable for when the reform could be completed, but analysts said it would likely prove difficult at least until after the French presidential elections next April.

“I regret that this reform that is indispensable to EDF cannot happen now,” said Levy. “Our short term [prospects] are guaranteed, but our medium and long term are not if we want to play in the big leagues, which is what is expected of EDF.”

Dubbed Project Hercules, the planned overhaul of EDF was meant to give it the financial firepower to invest in both nuclear and renewable energy in the coming decades.

An important element would be changing the mechanism and regulated prices at which EDF sells nuclear power, which provides 70 per cent of France’s electricity. France wanted to push through higher regulated prices for nuclear power, so EDF could pay down heavy debts and absorb the high costs of maintaining its nuclear reactors.

But Brussels would have to approve such a change because of its remit to ensure free competition in the energy sector and to prevent member states from unfairly bailing out companies.

The plan would effectively split up EDF by creating a government-owned mother company, EDF Bleu, containing the nuclear assets as well as a hydroelectric subsidiary. Another subsidiary, EDF Vert, would house renewable assets, the networks and services businesses, and would be publicly listed with about a third sold to raise funds to boost EDF’s green energy investments.

Macron has argued that the changes are vital for EDF to flourish and keep up with rivals. Given that France owns almost 84 per cent of the group, the government had also hoped the reforms would lighten the state’s financial burden.

But the overhaul has been caught in wrangling with the commission. Le Monde reported that the key sticking point was how the relationship between the newly created entities would work and whether cash could freely flow between them as if the company were still fully integrated.

The French finance ministry, which has piloted the talks, and the Elysée Palace declined to comment further on the details.

EDF’s powerful labour unions had opposed the plan as a prelude to the group being broken up or privatised, and have also raised concerns that it would pave the way for nuclear energy to be marginalised.

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“We celebrate the knockout punch delivered to Hercules,” the far-left CGT union said. “The only aim of these manoeuvres is to pull off juicy financial transactions at the expense of consumers and EDF employees.”

EDF shares fell as much as 4 per cent on Thursday as the reform’s failure overshadowed strong second-quarter financial results that showed the utility rebounding as economic activity picked up despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Barclays analysts wrote in a note that investors were being too pessimistic on the outlook for the reform even if its timing was hard to predict.

“We continue to believe that ultimately there will be an agreement between the EU and France on EDF’s reorganisation.”

Additional reporting by David Keohane



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EU economy chief urges end to ‘muddling through’ with budget rules

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EU economy updates

Brussels cannot afford to carry on fudging the application of its own fiscal rules to blunt their negative impact, the EU’s economics chief said as he called for a far-reaching legislative overhaul to help drive stronger public investment and growth.

Paolo Gentiloni said he wanted “renewed and reviewed” EU budget rules that would provide an incentive to public investment in the green and digital transitions, while fostering stability and durable economic growth.

“It is clear we cannot simply go back to normal,” Gentiloni said in an interview with the Financial Times. “You need common rules that are connected to the economic challenges we have. Otherwise, the risk is that the European Commission will spend the next decade finding creative ways to bypass its own rules, which I think is not the best solution we can have.”

The commission is due to restart this autumn a consultation on how to amend the rules surrounding the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP). The budget framework is currently suspended because of the Covid-19 crisis, but the rules are likely to be reimposed in 2023, and there will be a fierce debate ahead of that over how they should be reformed.

Janet Yellen, US Treasury secretary, this month added her voice to those arguing that the SGP restricts governments’ latitude to battle downturns as she called for the EU to reinforce its stimulus efforts. But fiscally conservative northern European member states will chafe against efforts to substantially loosen the rules, reigniting a north-south divide over economic policy.

Gentiloni said he did not see it as the commission’s role to question the EU treaty, which contains the basic goals of keeping public debt at 60 per cent of gross domestic product and deficits to 3 per cent. But he said he wanted the commission to propose reforms to legislation as it seeks to reflect post-pandemic realities, including the surge in average eurozone public debt burdens to 100 per cent of GDP.

He questioned whether the bloc should return to a “‘low for long situation’ — low inflation, low growth, low interest rates? Or should we try to use this crisis . . . to try to have stronger and more sustainable growth?”

He supported several changes, including adjusting the rules governing the mandated path for bringing down public debt ratios, which under the current framework would entail deep and punishing reductions following the debt blowouts over the past year.

The changes would entail a shift to more “simple and observable” criteria to manage fiscal policies, he said, referring to a suggestion from the European Fiscal Board, a commission advisory body, for a budget policy set according to an “expenditure rule” setting a ceiling on the growth rate of nominal public spending.

In addition, the rules would need to be changed to provide an incentive to public investment. This would help avoid repeating the aftermath of the financial crisis, when net investment drifted rapidly lower, stymying growth.

One idea is a “golden rule” excluding some specific growth-enhancing expenditure from the ceiling on spending growth, but Gentiloni stressed he was not wedded to that specific concept. “There are a lot of possible solutions, proposals, if we recognise the need to encourage, to strengthen, public investment in certain sectors.”

To “muddle through” with the budget rules might have previously seemed reasonable, Gentiloni said, but he argued that given the circumstances, legislative changes would be needed. “This is the only way to have real common rules, and not just common rules that are there to be bypassed,” he said.

Gentiloni reiterated the upbeat short-term economic outlook he offered this month when the commission published forecasts predicting the strongest growth in decades, with an expansion of 4.8 per cent this year and 4.5 per cent next.

While the spread of the Delta coronavirus variant presented a “downside risk” to growth, he stressed that the current situation was far more propitious given the rapid rate of Covid vaccinations. The EU, he pointed out, had caught up with the adult vaccination rate of the US.

“We know very well we’re not out of the woods. At the same time we should be very clear we’re in a different situation from the one last summer and the difference is caused by vaccines and vaccination,” Gentiloni said.

Indicators of individual mobility, and the stringency of lockdown measures, continued to point to a recovery “with speed”.

“I think the recovery will proceed. All in all our brighter forecast is still supported by what we see on the ground,” he said.



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