The fallout from the YPF seizure

The players are taking sides as Argentina consolidates the ground it has taken

The fallout from Argentina's seizure of 51 per cent of its former state oil company YPF continues today, both in diplomatic and financial sectors.

The most immediate impact is that a deal to sell the company has fallen through. The Financial Times reports that Repsol, the Spanish company that held 57 per cent of YPF, was negotiating a deal to sell the company to the Chinese firm Sinopec. Now that Repsol owns 6, rather than 57, per cent of the company, that deal is obviously unlikely to go through.

The sale was being negotiated in secret, according to the FT's sources, because the firms hoped to present it to the Argentine government in its finalised state. The government holds a golden share in YPF, which means that any sales have to be approved by it.

To what extent Argentina will feel concerned about this is debatable. On the one hand, they nationalised the company without knowing all the details, but on the other, even if the takeover had gone ahead, it seems unlikely it would have changed the state's rationale for action. Repsol was already investing more into YPF than it was getting from it, and there is no reason to believe that Sinopec would have behaved differently.

The impact of the move on Repsol itself has been a 6 per cent overnight fall in its share price, but where it goes from here depends on how many concessions it manages to extract from Argentina. The company is demanding $10bn compensation for the move, but the government seems unlikely to fork it over, with the deputy economic minsiter saying:

We are going to determine [YPF’s] real value. We are not going to pay what [Repsol] say.

Unless Argentina volunteers to enter arbitration, as Repsol is demanding, the real action looks to be diplomatic. Surprising nobody, Britain has entered the debate on the side of Spain. William Hague criticised the move, saying:

This is the latest in a series of trade and investment related actions taken by Argentina which are damaging to business interests, and will undermine Argentina’s economy. We will work with Spain and our EU partners to ensure the Argentine authorities uphold their international commitments.

The Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, hinted at further problems which Argentina could face as a result, telling El Pais:

In my opinion Argentina has shot itself in the foot. Argentina needs 36 billion euros in funding and it could see itself cut off from credit by international investors after this measure.

An editorial in the paper is similarly damning, writing:

The fact of the expropriation, threatened for months with the intention of undermining Repsol’s resistance and cheapening YPF’s shares, goes beyond a mere breakdown of the legal security one expects in a democratic country; it is an intentional betrayal of the agreement on reciprocal protection of investments signed by Spain and Argentina in November 1991, and initiates a period of grave uncertainty for Spanish companies in Argentina, and for all foreign investors there.

But the dissenting voices have started to come out of the woodwork. In the Guardian, Mark Weisbrot writes that Argentina has made the correct decision:

Now the government is reversing another failed neoliberal policy of the 1990s: the privatisation of its oil and gas industry, which should never have happened in the first place.

There are sound reasons for this move, and the government will most likely be proved right once again. Repsol, the Spanish oil company that currently owns 57% of Argentina's YPF, hasn't produced enough to keep up with Argentina's rapidly growing economy. From 2004 to 2011, Argentina's oil production has actually declined by almost 20% and gas by 13%, with YPF accounting for much of this. And the company's proven reserves of oil and gas have also fallen substantially over the past few years.

Weisbrot seems likely to stay in the minority, however. Given the disastrous effects of price controls on oil, the massaging of inflation figures (thought to be at 18-20 per cent, rather than the official 9-10 per cent) and the aforementined high investment by Repsol into YPF, Argentina is hardly a paragon of economic rationality.

A woman jogs past a sign referencing YPF in Argentina. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.