Behind the scenes in the Troika, madness reigns

"Cyprus is a template", said Jeroen Dijsselbloem, before hastily adding "Oh, wait, no it's not."

Overheard in a bar by our Brussels correspondent.

Well of course everybody’s been completely knackered with the overnight hoo-hah in Nicosia, trying to explain the facts of life to Nicos and chums, who’re clearly not happy anyway and extra jumpy when they hear a Russian accent. Herman had settled down behind his desk for a kip, Wolfgang was in a foul mood, and Mario’s not speaking to anyone at all, since he slammed down the phone on Tuesday saying he was sick of clearing up everybody else’s mess, did we have any idea how much Goldman would pay for a man of his talents, etc, etc.

So the eyes settled on this work-experience lad we’ve had doing a bit of this and that round the office. Not the sharpest tool in the box – main life experience to date was failing a university course in farming IIRC – but keen as mustard and had helped out with the photocopying and got Olli’s ipad hooked up to 3G so we were looking around for something for him to do longer-term. Simple enough, we thought. Talk to the press about the little fiasco in Cyprus, sad face about the sacrifices the Halloumi Massive are suffering, calm notes of triumph about our handling of the situation and how European Unity had prevailed.

A bit of background: things have been a little touchy with our German masters of late, what with the elections this year and Angela reading that biography of Bismarck. Now everyone knows it’s never going to happen, but the refusals to buy these lovely big chunks of Spanish and Italian bank equity without bothering about sovereign guarantees have been getting tetchier of late, so we’ve resigned ourselves to Operation Silence: nobody discusses how we’re going to fix the banks without anyone who has money being involved, Mario papers over the cracks and hopefully something comes up and the whole mess just goes away, because if push comes to shove, there’s not enough money in the pot to make everyone whole.

Unfortunately, what little Jeroen didn’t get was the importance of keeping your trap shut in Operation Silence. So he launches off on this tirade about how Cyprus was only the start , what happened to Russian money launderers today will be Spanish widows tomorrow, depositors of Europe line up to be sheared. And bugger the carefully-prepared script about “Cyprus is unique”, oh no he has to say it’s a template for the rest of Europe, so if you live in colder climes, invest in a sleeping bag, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time waiting for the ATM.

Of course this goes down like a cup of cold sick with the spivs in the markets, blood on the screens, Euro down the toilet, and within seconds we’ve got Francois on line one, Mariano on line two, and the rest of the switchboard jammed by Italians all claiming to be the next Prime Minister. So quickest reverse-ferret in history, very pointed two-liner on the website (would’ve been three lines, but managed to persuade Pierre that “little clog-wearing cretin” didn’t sound very ministerial). So job done for now, These Are Not The Bailout Templates You Were Looking For but lord help us if the cat ever does get out of the bag.

This piece was originally posted on Paweł's blog, and is reposted here with his permission.

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, head of the European group of finance ministers. Photograph: Getty Images

Pawe? Morski is a fund manager who blogs at Some of it was true…

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.