In the wake of Cyprus, the euro can survive

Everyone hold your breath... and then chill out and have a Easter egg.

This weekend you should spend as much time as possible holding your breath or crossing your fingers. Storm clouds are gathering throughout Europe and the downpour could begin as early as Tuesday. First of all there is the ongoing Cypriot tragi-comedy; tragic for innocent islanders and retirees who just saw the island as a nice place to keep their savings and see out their days, comedy with regard to the performance of the Troika; judge, jury and executioner in the form of the European Central Bank, (ECB), the International Monetary Fund and European Commission.

Secondly, there is the Italian political imbroglio, which this week descended into chaos as Grillo, the leader of the neo-anarchist Five Star Movement, called M. Bersani and Berlusconi something almost unprintable and Bersani said, “only an insane person would want to govern this country, which is in a mess and faces a difficult year ahead”, following his failed attempt to comply with the President’s request to form a government, raising the likelihood of months of uncertainty and new elections. Rumours abound of a possible credit rating downgrade over the weekend.

Thirdly, Slovenia is quietly imploding and nudging its way onto traders’ screens. The political situation is not much better than Italy’s and the banking system has bad loans equal to 20 per cent of GDP. These resonances caused its government bond yields to soar this week, following the Cypriot "solution".

Along with these near-term, possibly explosive threats, the Eurozone has to continue to cope with the slow-burn problems of Spain, which is failing to meet deficit reduction targets and, perhaps most frighteningly, France’s slowdown. Throw in the chasm opening up between President Hollande and Chancellor Markel and the Euro’s prospects may seem dire.

Notwithstanding all of the above, I remain cautiously, but resolutely certain that the Euro can survive, at least for the foreseeable future - meaning the next three years, say.

If we have learnt nothing else over the last few years it should be that the political will to ensure its survival is enormous and that the ECB is prepared to almost totally divorce itself from its Bundesbank heritage to play its part. Witness the protest resignations of two senior Bundesbankers from the ECB since the crisis broke. Merkel will masterfully persuade the German people to provide just enough largesse to southern Europe, without enraging her populace beyond breaking point, she will probably bend just enough on austerity to satisfy Hollande’s calls for growth, and after the elections she will probably even support the issuance of joint and several Eurobonds, which put all nations on the hook to the same degree. Finally, this Thursday, Draghi will give a masterful performance at the post-ECB meeting press conference, in an echo of his famous "whatever it takes" speech last year.

Cyprus can become a tragic memory, Italy is rich and will survive, Slovenia is small, and Spain and France will slowly respond to growth enhancement. Meanwhile, the US will surprise us all with its outperformance this year, once again acting as an economic locomotive.

So, let your breath out and have an Easter egg, if that is your fancy.

Look at these lambs. They're not worried about Cyprus. Photograph: Getty Images

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage