Cyprus: it's hard to imagine a neater way of undermining confidence in the banking sector.

A PR disaster.

I hold my hands up.  I could not have been more wrong if I had tried.

I did not believe that the banking powers-that-be (the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) would be so dumb as to sanction a levy on consumers savings to bail out banks.

It has been a PR disaster. It is hard to imagine a neater way of undermining confidence in the banking sector.

That the leading banks in Cyprus are in a mess is not in dispute. The sector is reckoned to need a bailout of €17 bn; that is probably a conservative estimate. But the proposal to raise €5.8 bn from depositors of Cypriot banks sets a dangerous precedent, in particular the notion that the levy apply to all savers.

There is, or rather there was, an EU-wide guarantee that small savers’ deposit balances up to €100,000 were protected. That assurance has been given to savers in Cyrus as elsewhere in the EU. That promise is now seen to be complete and utter bunkum. It gets worse. The EU and the European Central Bank are not merely allowing the authorities in Cyprus to rip up the €100,000 guarantee; the EU and ECB are the very bodies pressing Cyprus to levy a charge on all depositors.

The latest in this Cypriot pantomime is that the country’s president Nicos Anastasiades is considering a levy on deposits below €100,000 of 3 per cent. That, I suppose, is an improvement on a levy of 6.7 percent proposed over the weekend. The revised act of larceny would witness account holders with balances of between €100,000 and €500,000 forfeiting 10 percent, while deposit balances above €500,000 would be cut by 15 per cent.

It is no wonder that share prices have tumbled at the Eurozone’s largest banks. It can be argued that Cyprus is a special case as regards the size of its banking sector relative to the country’s GDP. It is not however far-fetched to imagine consumers in countries such as Spain, Greece and especially Italy fearing that their savings may be under threat in the future.

Just to add to the gloom, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch president of the group of euro area ministers, on Saturday refused to rule out taxes on depositors in countries beyond Cyprus. There remains time for the Cyprus government and the EU authorities to re-work their sums in an attempt to rebuild trust among small depositors. They could, for example, apply a tax-free threshold of €100,000 while raising the threshold on savings above €100,000; it is the least the government ought to do.

A PR disaster for the IMF, ECB, and EU. Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

Getty Images.
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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.