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Dutch Ramp Up Pressure on Unilever for €17 Billion Ice Cream Listing

(Bloomberg) -- The Dutch government is lobbying Unilever Plc to list its €17 billion ($18.4 billion) ice-cream unit in the Netherlands, having been encouraged by comments made by the consumer goods giant’s CEO earlier this week.

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Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs Micky Adriaansens has contacted and will soon meet Unilever’s Chief Executive Officer Hein Schumacher to discuss the company’s listing plans, according to a spokesperson for the ministry.

The Dutch government is ratcheting up pressure on the company to live up to a statement four years ago when Unilever said it would be minded to choose the Netherlands if it ever listed its wider food business. Officials are working on a slew of measures to improve the business climate in the country, according to people familiar with the matter.

The London-listed company said Tuesday that it would separate its ice cream business, with a listing the most likely option. While it has not decided where the owner of the Ben & Jerry’s and Magnum brands would float, Schumacher pointed out that the division is currently run from Rotterdam and is in the process of moving to a new head office in Amsterdam. Analysts at Barclays Plc previously said the division could be worth €17 billion.

The Dutch government spokesperson said Schumacher’s recent comments are a positive signal that it may win the listing.

Read More: Unilever CEO Steps Up With Plan to Shed Ben & Jerry’s and 7,500 jobs

In 2018, Unilever abandoned a plan to leave the UK for a single headquarters in the Netherlands after shareholders complained. The decision was a blow to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who had expended significant political capital to lure the company — including a hugely unpopular plan to scrap the country’s dividend tax.

Unilever sealed plans to headquarter in the UK in 2020. In a letter to the Dutch government at the time, the company said that should it ever “choose to list the Foods & Refreshment Division as an independent company, it would be incorporated and listed in the Netherlands, provided the Netherlands continues to be an attractive headquarter location for business.” Ice cream was later separated from that division.

A spokesperson for Unilever declined to comment.

Wilders election

Several parties are in talks to form a Dutch government after far-right politician Geert Wilders’ shock election victory in November. Concern is spreading among corporate leaders over what they see as an increasingly unwelcome business climate in the Netherlands.

Recent laws to tax share buybacks and reduce tax benefits for expatriates — alongside a bill that would cap the number of foreign students allowed to study in the country — have set off alarm bells at companies that rely on international talent, including ASML Holding NV, Europe’s largest tech business by market capitalization.

With concern about the investment climate mounting, the Dutch finance ministry is working on alternative proposals to the bank and share buyback taxes as well as to the winding down of expatriate tax breaks. Government officials expect to present an outline to parliament next Thursday, according to people familiar with the matter.

Top Dutch employer organization VNO-NCW, which had been warning about a worsening business environment, said it hopes Unilever will list the unit in the Netherlands. “We are the place for research and development in food worldwide and this seems a logical step,” said Edwin van Scherrenburg, spokesman for VNO-NCW.

--With assistance from Sabah Meddings.

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