Who is Jim Ratcliffe, the pro-Brexit billionaire promised €700m from UK government to build ‘carbon bomb’ in Europe?

Environmental campaigners warn that Ratcliffe's controversial 'Project One' will bring 'US-scale plastic production to Europe.'

Jim Ratcliffe, Britain’s pro-Brexit billionaire, hit the headlines this week with news that the government is providing a €700m guarantee for him to build the biggest petrochemical plant in Europe in 30 years. The plant will turbocharge the production of plastic.

Left Foot Forward takes a look at who Ratcliffe is, and how his controversial ‘Project One’ that will bring ‘US-scale plastic production to Europe’ is recieving significant financial guarantees from the Tory government.

Ratcliffe’s story is one of capitalist meritocracy, of someone who grew up on a council estate in Failsworth, Manchester, and went on to become the wealthiest man in Britain. He studied chemical engineering at Birmingham University and gained an MBA from London Business School in 1980. Having worked as a chemical engineer, in May 1998 he founded Ineos. The multinational is one of the largest chemical producers in the world and plays a significant role in the oil and gas market.  According to the 2023 Sunday Times Rich List, the company’s owner, Ratcliffe, is worth £27.9bn.

In February, Manchester United confirmed that the 71-year-old had bought at 25 percent stake in the football club, for which he paid $1.3bn. He had already invested $200m for additional shares, meaning he owns approximately 27.7 percent of the club.

Ratcliffe was an ardent supporter of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum. He famously said that Britain would thrive without red tape from Brussels. Following the referendum, he urged the government for tough negotiations with the EU. “We must listen, we must be unwaveringly polite and retain our charm. But there is no room for weakness or crumpling at 3am when the going gets tough and most points are won or lost,” he said.

Four years later in 2020, Ratcliffe quit Britain for tax-free Monaco. It is estimated that changing his tax address from Hampshire to the sovereign-city state of Monaco, home to many of Britain’s wealthiest people, would save the petrochemical magnate £4bn in tax payments.

Despite his colossal wealth, Ineos has been embroiled in a number of disputes involving its workforce. At the company’s plant in Scotland, employees were reportedly forced to accept a three-day pay freeze, after they were locked out of the factory. They were also banned from striking for three years.

In 2017, it emerged that the petrochemical giant boss had secretly lobbied George Osborne as chancellor to ‘muzzle the unions, cut company taxes, and back fracking.’ Briefings and emails disclosed under freedom of information law reveal that Ratcliffe had privately met Osborne in 2013 to propose a series of legislative measures to curb unions’ ability to strike and to reduce workers’ pensions. The goal was to shift the balance of power from unions to employers.

A year later, a campaign escalated in Yorkshire opposing fracking in the area. The opposition was aimed at Ineos, which was seeking access to land in the region to carry out seismic testing.

Ratcliffe has also been lobbying politicians in Europe pushing back against green policies, which he claims are driving away investment. He recently told the EU Commission president that Europe has “long been left behind” and struggles to compete with the USA, China and the Middle East.

He argued there will be “little left” if the European government does not address the high energy costs, carbon taxes and lack of renewal that impacts the chemicals sector in Europe.

“Carbon taxes have been successful in driving investment away and increasing the burden on manufacturers,” said the billionaire.

This week, it was announced that the government is providing a €700m guarantee for Ratcliffe to build a huge petrochemical plant in Europe. The site will import fracked shale gas from the US to provide the ethane which will produce 1450 kilotons of ethylene – the building block of plastic – a year.

The plant is being constructed by Ineos in the Belgian city of Antwerp. Environmental campaigners have described the petrochemical plant as a ‘carbon bomb,’ warning that it will turbocharge plastic production on a scale not seen before in Europe, at a time when countries are hoping to negotiate a binding global treaty to tackle plastic pollution. The ‘Project One’ plant has faced a long-running legal battle by environmental groups. In the summer of 2023, the building of Ratcliffe’s €3bn plant was halted after a landmark court victory by the NGOs. A new legal challenge argues that the true impact of the development on people, nature and the climate has not been considered.

“There is a huge problem of plastic pollution from nurdles already in Antwerp and the Netherlands. This plant will bring US-scale plastic production to Europe,” said Jeroen Dagevos, of the Plastic Soup Foundation, one of the NGOs challenging Project One.

Despite the opposition and warnings about the adverse impact on climate and biodeiversity the plant will create, the UK government has provided financial guarantees of €700m to support the building of the plant. The support from the export finance department, an arm of the Department for Business and Trade, to Ratcliffe, surpasses the support promised by the same department for countries in the Middle East and Africa to adapt to climate breakdown.

In response to the opposition towards Ratcliffe’s Project One, a spokesperson for the government said: “UK Export Finance helps UK businesses to win, deliver and get paid for overseas contracts.

“Our financing guarantee for Project One secures new export opportunities and is consistent with our continued support for a global transition towards net zero.”

LFF reached out to Ineos for comment. We have yet to have a response.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

Image credit: YouTube screen grab

Comments are closed.