Eurogroup demonstrates how not to calm fears about Cyprus

Jeroen Dijsselbloem nearly ruined everything.

Good news! Jeroen Dijsselbloem, chair of the group of eurozone finance ministers, nearly accidentally killed the euro yesterday.

In what Reuters blogger Felix Salmon described as a "formal, on-the-record joint interview" with Reuters and the FT, Dijsselbloem managed to suggest that the Cypriot bail-in was, in the words of Reuters' Luke Baker, "a new template for resolving eurozone banking problems".

Dijsselbloem said:

What we've done last night is what I call pushing back the risks… If there is a risk in a bank, our first question should be 'Okay, what are you in the bank going to do about that? What can you do to recapitalise yourself?'. If the bank can't do it, then we'll talk to the shareholders and the bondholders, we'll ask them to contribute in recapitalising the bank, and if necessary the uninsured deposit holders.

The tenor of Dijsselbloem's comments certainly suggests he meant them to be generally applied. And, on paper, it's a good ranking of priorities: first you get the bank, which caused the problem, to claw back as much as it can, then you talk to the shareholders and bondholders, who have knowingly taken a risk on the bank's solvency, and then, you talk to depositors. Because depositors are, after all, just people who have loaned money to the bank in a different form; and if they're uninsured, they've always known there was a risk of losing a lot if they bank went under.

Unfortunately, this is precisely the sort of thing that you aren't supposed to say. Because the obvious outcome of explicitly stating that uninsured depositors are considered legitimate sources of funds for the recapitalization of their banks is that uninsured depositors start taking their money out of their banks, particularly in the other eurozone nations where the banks aren't yet out of trouble.

Bank runs are, generally, considered bad news. So it's somewhat unsurprising that shortly after Dijsselbloem's interview hit the press, he released a terse statement walking it back. You could smell the burning rubber from the speed of the u-turn; it reads, in full:

Cyprus is a specific case with exceptional challenges which required the bail-in measures we have agreed upon yesterday.

Macro-economic adjustment programmes are tailor-made to the situation of the country concerned and no models or templates are used.

It's hard to know quite what Dijsselbloem was thinking – although Paweł Morski presents an entertaining scenario of his own. But it becomes a bit clearer when you look at his background.

Dijsselbloem is the Netherlands' finance minister, a position he has only been in since 2012. His extraordinary position of power in the eurogroup comes from the standard rotating presidency, rather than any particular competency, and, although his electoral career goes back to 2000, his only other policy jobs have been the leader of a parliamentary inquiry on education reform in 2007 and a post at the agriculture ministry from 1996 to 2000.

The eurozone seems to alternate between the under-elected and the under-qualified, and it's not getting any better.

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, with Christine Lagarde and Olli Rehn. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity