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Brexit talks hit 'real problem' over Northern Ireland border

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Brexit negotiations have hit a "real problem" over the issue of the Irish border, government sources have warned.

The EU is believed to be seeking further reassurances to prevent the return of a so-called hard border involving physical checks.

Hopes of a breakthrough were raised when the Brexit secretary made an unscheduled trip to Brussels on Sunday.

But talks faltered over the need for a back-up plan - known as the backstop - to avoid a hard border.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May has insisted any backstop arrangement should apply to the UK as a whole to avoid creating a new border in the Irish Sea.

But Sunday's talks had broken down after the EU had insisted on a second backstop arrangement - just involving Northern Ireland - if the UK's version wasn't ready in time, Downing Street sources indicated.

The Democratic Unionist Party has vowed to oppose any new checks on goods passing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And the party's Brexit spokesman has said the prospect of a no-deal Brexit is "probably inevitable".

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It would be a chronic miscalculation and an utter disgrace if the policy of the British government was to be set by the most extreme elements of the Brexiteers and the needs and desires and the idiosyncrasies of the Democratic Unionist Party."

This week's summit comes as domestic political pressure on Mrs May increases amid threats of potential cabinet resignations.

Labour has called on the government to publish its plan for the backstop.

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said any proposal needed full scrutiny from MPs before an agreement could be struck with the rest of the EU at the Brussels summit.

A Number 10 source said the prime minister had made sure Parliament was regularly updated on the talks.

'Naked contempt'

Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the backstop idea should be jettisoned altogether.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Johnson said that "in presuming to change the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, the EU is treating us with naked contempt".

Meanwhile, Ireland's ambassador to the UK, Adrian O'Neill, said Sunday's events in Brussels were a "setback" and could increase the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

He told BBC Radio 4's Westminster Hour that time was "running out", adding: "Preparations for all eventualities are ramping up quite significantly."

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Commission has approved Portugal's recovery and resilience plan worth around €16 billion despite serious questions

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On Wednesday (16 June), Portugal became the first EU country to have its recovery plan rubber-stamped by the EU. Crucially, the Portuguese national recovery plan, as with others, will need to satisfy certain EU demands. These include meeting the landmark targets of at least 37% spending on the Green Deal and 20% on digitisation. Sustainable structural reforms in line with the country-specific recommendations are also a key assessment criterion.

The plans should describe how the proposed investments and reforms contribute to the main goals of RRF, which include green and digital transformations, smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, social and territorial cohesion, health and resilience, and policies for the next generation.

Amid the fanfare surrounding Wednesday’s announcement the big question now is: how effectively will Portugal spend the huge pot of money?

German MEP Sven Giegold, financial and economic policy spokesperson of the Greens/EFA group, told this website: "In principle, the European recovery fund is a great success.”

But he went on: “Now it is a matter of implementation whether the fund’s potential is fully exploited. In the case of Portugal, for a significant part of the measures it is not yet foreseeable whether they will have a positive or negative impact.”

The deputy concedes: “Important details on the implementation of some of the measures planned are still missing.”

Specifically, he asks, for example, whether the construction of new housing in Portugal will contribute to the achievement of the European climate targets.

The answer, he argues, will depend decisively on the building materials used and the energy efficiency of the planned buildings.

Giegold said: “It is important that the Commission continuously accompanies the implementation of national plans and verifies their compliance with the spending objective and the do no significant harm principle.

“We call on the Commission to make the negotiations with the Member States transparent. The European Parliament and civil society must be involved as provided for in the EU regulation.”

Toni Roldan, head of research at the Esade Centre for Economic Policy (EsadeEcPol) in Madrid, says that since the eurozone debt crisis began in 2011, Lisbon has often been in the firing line of Europe's more "frugal" members frustrated at having to fork out money to subsidise spending in what they have seen as the somewhat less fiscally virtuous south.

Although some of the conditions attached to the stimulus packages remain vague, he says Portugal could have shown "greater reformist ambition" in using the money, particularly in the area of education.

The CIP, Confederation of Portuguese Industries, is also lukewarm (at best) over what the ‘cash bazooka’ will actually mean to those that need it most in Portugal.

 None of these concerns stopped Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president,from travelling to Lisbon on Wednesday to mark the Portuguese plans’ approval in what is scheduled to be a series of visits to EU capitals.

 The Commission says it has adopted a positive assessment of Portugal's recovery and resilience plan, an important step towards the EU disbursing €13.9 billion in grants and €2.7 billion in loans under the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) over the period 2021-2026. This financing will support the implementation of the crucial investment and reform measures outlined in Portugal's recovery and resilience plan.

The Commission, a spokesman  told this website, had assessed Portugal's plan based on the criteria set out in the RRF Regulation. The Commission's analysis considered, in particular, whether the investments and reforms contained in Portugal's plan support the green and digital transitions; contribute to effectively addressing challenges identified in the European Semester; and strengthen its growth potential, job creation and economic and social resilience.

The Commission's assessment finds that Portugal's plan devotes 38% of its total allocation to measures that support climate objectives. This includes investments to finance a large-scale renovation programme to increase the energy efficiency of buildings or the promotion of energy efficiency and the use of alternative energy sources in industrial processes.

The Portugal's plan devotes 22% of its total allocation to measures that support the digital transition. This includes efforts to digitalise the public administration and to modernise the computer systems of the National Health Service, as well as technological laboratories in secondary schools and professional training centres.

“The Commission considers that Portugal's plan includes an extensive set of mutually reinforcing reforms and investments that contribute to effectively addressing all or a significant subset of the economic and social challenges outlined in the country-specific recommendations addressed to Portugal,” said the spokesman.

It includes measures in the areas of accessibility and resilience of social services and the health system, labour market, education and skills, R&D and innovation, climate and digital transition, business environment, quality and sustainability of public finances and efficiency of the justice system.

Portugal's plan proposes projects in six European flagship areas. For instance, Portugal has proposed to provide €610 million to renovate public and private buildings to improve their energy performance. This, hopes the commission, will result in Portugal reducing its energy bill, greenhouse gas emissions and energy dependence, as well as reducing energy poverty.

“The control systems put in place by Portugal are considered adequate to protect the financial interests of the Union. The plan provides sufficient details on how national authorities will prevent, detect and correct instances of conflict of interest, corruption and fraud relating to the use of funds.”

For some, this is the key point and, in particular, Portugal’s ability to effectively manage and spend these new EU funds.

Having sound mechanisms in place to protect the bloc’s financial interests against any maladministration is, says the commission spokesman, one of the elements prioritised by the Commission in the negotiations with national governments to finalise the recovery plans. 

But, in the past, Portugal has been blamed for having a notoriously slow judiciary system. Portugal, in fact, has one of the worst records in processing court cases and its administrative and tax courts in particular have been severely criticised by foreign investors and the EU.

This resulted in the European council identifying reform of the administrative and tax courts as one of the priorities in Portugal´s economic reform.

Some of the cases affected by the backlog are those put forward by a group of international investors, following the resolution of Banco Espirito Santo in 2015, who challenged the losses imposed on the €2.2 billion of bonds they held.

The scandal surrounding the Banco Espirito Santo (BES), the second largest private financial institution in Portugal but which collapsed in 2014 under a mountain of debt, is often cited as an example of why Portuguese courts need reform.

Despite improvements “the efficiency of the justice system continues to face challenges”, said the Commission in its first Rule of Law report about the country in 2020.

The commission addressed this issue in the country-specific recommendations, calling on Lisbon to improve the efficiency in tax and administrative courts 

Portugal has found itself at the centre of allegations about misspending EU funds over several years, including criticism from the Court of Auditors – the EU spending watchdog body – that investigated spending in the field of fisheries. It found that Portugal had not fulfilled its obligation under the Common Fisheries Policy of putting in place effective measures to match fishing capacity to fishing opportunities.

Elsewhere, last February last year, the authorities dismantled a transnational network  based in Portugal where the suspects were engaged in fraud and illegal EU fundraising.

In addition to the Recovery Fund fortune, Portugal has reaped the fruits of the more than €100 billion of Cohesion Policy funds invested in the country since its accession to the European Union and Portugal will receive significant support from the EU under the 2021-2027 Cohesion Policy, with a proposed envelope of €23.8bn.

Paolo Gentiloni, Commissioner for Economy, says “it is fitting that the first plan to be assessed positively is Portugal's: not only because it was the first to be submitted, but also because the Portuguese Presidency played such a key role in putting in place the legal and financial framework for this unprecedented common European endeavour.”

So, with the spending spotlight firmly on Portugal many are now looking to see exactly how – and if - Lisbon will fulfil its duties with its new “pot of gold”.

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Catalan MEPs lose immunity after secret European Parliament vote

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Clara Ponsati, Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comin are wanted by Spain for their part in the 2017 Catalan independence referendum

The European Parliament has voted to remove the parliamentary immunity of three Catalan MEPs wanted by Spain over the 2017 independence push. Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and his ex-ministers Clara Ponsati and Toni Comin are exiled in Brussels, and Madrid could now reactivate European arrest warrants which have so far been refused by Belgium, writes Greg Russell @National_Greg.

In a secret ballot held last night but only revealed this morning, more than 400 MEPs voted to lift their immunity, almost 250 against and more than 40 MEPs abstained.

Puigdemont is expected to raise the issue at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) after a report from the parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee recommending the removal of their immunity was leaked to the media.

This is the third time the Spanish Supreme Court has tried have them extradited, after previous attempts failed in Scotland, Belgium and Germany.

Losing their immunity will not affect their status as MEPs, which they will retain until they are barred from office by a conviction.

Aamer Anwar, lawyer for Ms Ponsati, tweeted: “Shameful vote by @Europarl_EN giving into Spain to lift immunity of MEPs @ClaraPonsati @toni_comin @KRLS Who face extradition & political persecution for exercising the democratic will of the Catalan people-The legal battle goes on”

The Spanish government immediately welcomed the decision by the European Union’s legislature as a victory for the rule of law and against those who sought to break the north-eastern region away from the rest of Spain.

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Has the shine worn off activist investment?

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A few recent cases suggest that the tide may finally be turning on activist investment, which until recently seemed as if it was becoming an entrenched part of the business world. Although the value of activist investor-held assets may have been climbing in recent years (in the UK, this figure grew 43% between 2017 and 2019 to reach $5.8 billion), the number of campaigns fell by 30% in the year leading up to September 2020. Of course, that drop-off can partly be explained by the fallout from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but the fact that more and more plays appear to be falling on deaf ears could signal a bleaker long-term outlook for activist agitators going forwards.

The latest case in point comes from England, where wealth management fund St James’s Place (SJP) were the subject of an attempted activist intervention on the part of PrimeStone Capital last month. After purchasing a 1.2% stake in the company, the fund sent an open letter to the SJP board of directors challenging their recent track record and calling for targeted improvements. However, the lack of incision or originality in the PrimeStone manifesto meant that it was brushed off with relative ease by SJP, with little impact being felt on its share price. The underwhelming nature and outcome of the campaign is indicative of a growing trend in recent years – and one that could be set to become more pronounced in a post-Covid-19 society.

PrimeStone unable to inspire

The PrimeStone play took the traditional form favoured by activist investors; after acquiring a minority stake in SJP, the fund tried to flex its muscles by highlighting the perceived shortcomings of the current board in an 11-page missive. Among other issues, the letter identified the company’s bloated corporate structure (over 120 head of department on the payroll), flagging Asian interests and tumbling share price (stocks have fallen 7% since 2016). They also identified a “high-cost culture” in SJP’s backroom and made unfavorable comparisons with other prosperous platform businesses like AJ Bell and Integrafin.

While some of the criticisms had elements of validity, none of them were especially novel—and they didn’t paint a complete picture. In fact, several third parties have come to the defence of SJP’s board, pointing out that equating the company’s downturn with the rise of interests such as AJ Bell is unfair and overly simplistic, and that when set against more reasonable touchstones such as Brewin Dolphin or Rathbones, SJP holds its own remarkably well.

PrimeStone’s admonishments over SJP’s high spending may hold some water, but they fail to recognize that much of that outlay was unavoidable, since the firm was forced to comply with regulatory changes and succumb to revenue headwinds beyond its control. Its impressive performance against its competitors confirms that the company has been dealing with sector-wide issues exacerbated by the pandemic, something which PrimeStone singularly failed to fully acknowledge or address.

Momentous vote imminent for URW

It’s a similar story across the Channel, where French billionaire Xavier Niel & businessman Léon Bressler have collected a 5% stake in international shopping mall operator Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW) and are adopting Anglo-Saxon activist investor tactics to try and secure URW board seats for themselves and push URW into a risky strategy to drive up its share price in the short term.

It’s clear that, like most companies in the retail sector, URW needs a fresh strategy to help weather the pandemic-induced recession, particularly given its relatively high level of debt (more than €27 billion). To that end, URW’s board of directors are hopeful of launching project RESET, which targets a capital raise of €3.5 billion in order to maintain the company’s good investment-grade credit rating and ensure continued access to all important credit markets, while gradually deleveraging the shopping mall business.

Niel and Bressler, however, want to forego the €3.5bn capital increase in favour of selling off the firm’s US portfolio—a collection of prestigious shopping centres which have by and large proven resistant to the changing retail environment—to pay down debt. The activist investors’ plan is being opposed by a number of third party advisory firms such as Proxinvest and Glass Lewis, with the latter calling it “an excessively risky gambit”. Given that credit rating agency Moody’s have predicted an 18-month slump in rental income that is likely to hit shopping centres – and have even gone as far as to warn that failure to implement the capital raise underpinning RESET could result in a downgrading of URW’s rating – it seems likely that Niel and Bressler’s ambitions will be rebuffed at the November 10th shareholder meeting, in the same way that PrimeStone’s have been.

Long-term growth over short-term gains

Elsewhere, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey appears to have also overcome an attempt by high-profile activist investor Elliott Management to oust him from his role. Although a recent committee meeting did cede to some of Elliott’s demands, such as reducing board terms from three years to one, it chose to declare its allegiance to a chief executive who had overseen total shareholder returns of 19% prior to Elliott’s involvement with the social media behemoth earlier this year.

Alongside the atypically uninspiring campaigns conducted elsewhere in the market, and the retrogression of the sector as a whole, could it be that activist investors are losing their clout? For a long time, they have drawn attention to their ventures through flashy antics and bold prognoses, but it seems that companies and shareholders alike are catching on to the fact that behind their bluster, their approaches often contain fatal flaws. Namely, a focus on short-term inflation of the share price to the detriment of long-term stability is being exposed as the irresponsible gamble that it is – and in a shaky post-Covid economy, judicious prudence is likely to be prized above immediate profit with increasing regularity.

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