Cyprus isn't something happening "over there"

Europe – and that includes Britain – is unavoidably connected.

In case anyone thought that the bank and sovereign debt crisis that has engulfed certain parts of the eurozone has produced all its dramatic twists, events this weekend came as a rude awakener.

Eurozone leaders agreed early on Saturday morning a deal to bailout and restructure the Cypriot banking sector.

The most controversial part of the deal sees a tax levied on depositors to raise about 5.8 billion euros, to add to the €10 billion committed by the Eurozone and (probably) IMF. A 9.9 per cent levy will be imposed to deposits over 100.000, while deposits below 100.000 will face a levy of 6.75 per cent.

So for the first time depositors, who were considered sacrosanct until now, are forced to share the cost of a bail-out.

A lot has been said about how this decision was reached. The blame shifts depending who one talks to, but the Financial Times give a good account. It seems that considerations about the future of Cyprus as an off-shore financial centre played a role when deciding how widely to spread the pain among depositors in Cypriot banks. It was feared that taxing only non-resident depositors would scare investors away.

So the main bone of contention (in an overall contentious decision) is that smaller depositors are put on the firing line, in a move that is seen as unfair and dangerous. Asking working people and pensioners to sacrifice their savings in the service of a failed banking sector is indeed cruel. But WSJ’s Simon Dixon makes a fair point, there is an element of fairness when asking locals to contribute to the bail out of their country’s banking sector, especially when that sector represents such a huge part of the country’s economy.

Many argue that it should not have come to this at all, that depositors should have been spared all together. But as Hugo Dixon of Reuters argues the Eurozone and the Cypriot government had very little choice. Imposing a haircut on government debt, like it was done in Greece’s case, was not possible because most of the country’s sovereign debt is held under English law (making a Greek-style restructuring hard) and the remaining is held by Cypriot banks, making a hair-cut self-defeating.

Hence the decision to impose a tax on depositors, many of whom are non-resident, predominately Russian and in many cases suspect of money-laundering. It would have been a hard task politically to explain to taxpayers across the Eurozone why they should contribute more to a bail-out that would have, to some extent, helped Russian oligarchs.

The most important thing that one should consider is what would be the cost of an alternative. In the absence of a bail-out deal (one that the Cypriot government had delayed long enough) Cypriot banks (which are already under ECB life-support) would collapse, taking the Cypriot economy with them. Lest we forget that the banking sector in Cyprus is more than 5 times the Cypriot economy.

The one good thing that can come out of this is the de facto reduction of Cyprus’ banking sector to a size closer to the EU average, as the Eurogroup statement, that followed the bailout agreement, calls for. As we have seen in other European countries like Ireland and the UK, an oversized financial sector holds huge risks for the host country, especially for one whose economy is as small as that of Cyprus. To a large extent this is a banking crisis, rather than a “euro-crisis” and no matter what the structural inefficiencies of Eurozone’s governance (and European politicians inability so far to separate bank from sovereign debt) what Cyprus is faced with is the collapse of a banking sector that grew too big for its own good and made far too many bad decisions.

There is still a lot to play for, not least a parliamentary vote to approve the bail-out deal. Until then there is time and room to reconsider how the burden will be spread among depositors, and there are many proposals on the table on how to shield small depositors and reduce their contribution to the bail-out pot of money. Some reports talk about reducing to 3 per cent the levy imposed to deposits up to €100.000.

One last thing. The situation in Cyprus shows that in an interconnected world we are not immune to what happens “over there”. Capital as well as people are mobile, the banking sector interconnected and as a result banks and people’s savings are affected, irrespectively whether we are part of the Eurozone or not. The fact that British citizens who live and hold deposits in Cyprus will have to be part of the bail-out levy shows how important it is for the British government to be as involved as possible in Eurozone governance and EU-wide efforts to address the systemic faults of Europe’s financial sector.

Photograph: Getty Images

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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