US president Joe Biden and German chancellor Olaf Scholz struggled to present a united front against a Russian threat to invade Ukraine, as a White House meeting exposed differences over the fate of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
Biden told reporters yesterday that if Moscow invaded, the pipeline linking Russia with Germany would not become operational. “I promise you, we will be able to do that,” he said.
His comments represented a hardening of Washington’s stance on the project, which has been built but is not yet pumping gas and has emerged as a sticking point in the transatlantic debate over which sanctions to impose on Moscow in the event of an invasion.
Scholz repeatedly dodged questions on the fate of the pipeline and refused to mention it by name, instead offering generic assurances that Russia would pay a “high price” for any attack.
French officials said Vladimir Putin moved towards de-escalating the crisis by promising not to undertake any new “military initiatives” in the region after five hours of talks with Emmanuel Macron. The French president is set to meet Volodymyr Zelensky, his Ukrainian counterpart, today in Kyiv.
Opinion: Will there be an invasion? That depends on which version of the Russian leader you believe in: Putin the Rational or Vlad the Mad, writes Gideon Rachman.
How likely is a Russian invasion of Ukraine? Which version of Putin do you believe in? Tell me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading FirstFT Europe/Africa. Here’s the rest of today’s news — Jennifer
Five more stories in the news
1. Starmer mobbing piles pressure on Johnson Boris Johnson came under mounting pressure yesterday to offer a full apology to Sir Keir Starmer after the prime minister’s “Trump-style” rhetoric was linked to a mob surrounding the Labour leader and shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, at Westminster. Two people were arrested.
2. SoftBank’s $66bn Arm sale to Nvidia collapses SoftBank’s planned sale of the UK-based chip designer to Nvidia collapsed yesterday after US, UK and EU regulators raised concerns about its effect on competition in the global semiconductor industry, according to three people with direct knowledge of the transaction.
3. Reddit prepares for public debut The San Francisco-based social media platform, home of the anarchic r/WallStreetBets trade-tipping forum, is preparing for a stock market listing by stepping up efforts to build an advertising business, approaching agencies such as WPP, according to people familiar with the situation.
4. Peng Shuai denies alleging sexual assault The Chinese tennis star told French sports newspaper L’Equipe that she had “never said anyone had sexually assaulted” her in her first sit-down interview since China’s biggest #MeToo controversy erupted in November. L’Equipe said it had questions vetted and Peng spoke in the presence of a representative from China’s Olympic committee.
5. Tesla subpoenaed by SEC Tesla has received a subpoena from the US securities regulator relating to its compliance with a settlement in 2018 that had resolved a dispute over chief executive Elon Musk’s tweet that he had “funding secured” to take the electric carmaker private.
In Europe, infection rates remain elevated but are declining, according to the FT’s Covid-19 tracker, as nations across the continent relax restrictions.
A quarter of UK employers said long Covid was now a leading cause of long-term sickness absence among staff.
Signs of a more hawkish shift by the European Central Bank sent borrowing costs for southern eurozone governments close to pre-pandemic highs yesterday, though Christine Lagarde said any shift would be gradual.
Spain was home to more than a third of eurozone jobs created last year, but its gross domestic product remains 4 per cent below 2019 levels. Find out what is behind the paradox.
Australia will open its borders to international travellers on February 21, almost two years after it cut itself off from the world to stop the spread of Covid-19.
The Omicron variant has exposed the weakness of current vaccines and revived interest in an all-protective “super jab”. How far is it from becoming a reality?
The day ahead
European Chips Act The forthcoming bill, to be published today, would give regulators seeping powers to protect domestic production during a shortage crisis and help “shore up our security of supply”, said Thierry Breton, EU industry commissioner.
Corporate earnings Ride-hailing group Lyft publishes results, as does fitness group Peloton, BNP Paribas, BP, CNH Industrial, Harley-Davidson, Iveco, Nissan Motor, Ocado, Pfizer, Securitas, SoftBank, Thomson Reuters and Tui Travel. Property developer Bellway delivers a trading update.
Economic developments Poland’s central bank is expected to raise rates for a fifth consecutive month. France publishes trade balances for December and Italy has retail sales data out. The US trade deficit could reach a record in December on strong consumer demand and easing supply chain bottlenecks. (FT, WSJ)
Church of England General Synod gathers in London Debates will probably include the UK church’s attitude to same-sex relationships and slavery.
What else we’re reading
Inside Axel Springer’s #MeToo moment In the spring of 2021, senior employees at German publisher Axel Springer thought they had defused misconduct claims against the editor of Bild, Europe’s top-selling daily newspaper. “For now we have calm,” a board member said. Instead, the real trouble was yet to come. A three-month investigation by the Financial Times takes a closer look into this episode.
Why aren’t there more Dick Whittingtons? One of the aims of the UK government’s “levelling-up” strategy is to spread opportunities so that young people don’t have to leave their hometowns to succeed, as the folklore hero. But to look at the data, what is surprising isn’t how many Whittingtons there are, but how few, writes Sarah O’Connor.
Le Pen fights for far-right votes Marine Le Pen is facing an offstage power struggle worthy of the court of Versailles. Defections by some party officials to the camp of far-right challenger Eric Zemmour are complicating her efforts to unseat President Emmanuel Macron.
Data can be wrong, too The US labour force is significantly closer to returning to its pre-coronavirus level than we thought. The story about pandemic-exhausted Americans saying the hell with the job market had its basic premises undone, writes Rob Armstrong in the latest Unhedged newsletter. Sign up here.
Wall Street relaxes about returning to the office Bankers have been returning to the office in recent days as cases of Omicron decrease in New York. But this time, the return to work is happening with a whimper rather than the bang that accompanied the reopening last summer.
Related read: There are pros and cons to building a company remotely. As a former foreign correspondent, Patti Waldmeir weighs in.
As English Premier League clubs start to invest in the women’s game, the FT’s Murad Ahmed explains the business case and examines whether women’s football should replicate the structure and feel of the men’s game or establish an identity of its own.
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