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

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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