Cypriot counterintution part one: "It was a good thing"

Should we be cheering one of the first wealth taxes of this millennium?

As the Cyprus saga continues, the interesting counterintuitive takes are starting to bubble up. Obviously there's a tendency, when so many people agree on the broad strokes of the news – that Cyprus is in a crap position, that the tax is pretty stupid, and that there's not a whole amount of other options – to go against the grain for the sake of it, but each of these arguments have merit to them.

First up is Philip Inman in the Guardian, who argues that we should ignore the "hysterical reaction" to the tax, because "it is a wealth tax – and about time too." Inman writes:

A wealth tax on bank deposits, where most wealth is held, is consequently a practical solution that also fulfils a basic economic need, which is to shift taxes away from income to wealth. Poorer citizens need to feed themselves, and a tax on incomes, especially for those with no savings, is the worst outcome.

It mimics an argument that was going around Twitter yesterday, pointing out that "a 1 [percentage point] rise in Sales Tax would be way more regressive and not even raise an eyebrow." Of course, it's questionable whether that increase increase in sales tax could raise quite as much as the tax on deposits, but that's even more of an argument in favour of the deposit tax.

The real hope for all of this, in fact, is that the Cypriot government will struggle through the negotiations and come out the other side with a deposit tax which applies entirely to deposits over €100,000. As Ben Hammersley tweeted:

 

 

Given that many of the wealthier depositors in Cypriot banks are engaged in questionable financial practices – and even outright money laundering, it seems – it's not a terrible thing to ask that the entire weight of the bailout be put on their shoulders. Of course, even if they weren't, it still wouldn't be that bad an idea, because putting the greatest burden on the broadest shoulders is almost the definition of a progressive tax system.

Except, of course, for the fact that the Cypriot economy benefits from its status as a financial haven. A rebalancing of the economy may still be a good thing for poorer Cypriots, but it's not clear that the hit the country is taking to pay off the ECB is bigger than the hit it would take if it scared away its questionably legal golden goose.

Interestingly, it seems that Cyprus agrees. France has confirmed, and credible reports indicate Germany and Finland back it up, that the negotiations with the Cypriot government only required it to implement a tax on deposits over the insurance threshold of €100,000. Insured deposits were considered sacrosanct to the Troika, but not to the Cypriot government, which needed to "spread the pain".

But the big reason why Inman's counterintuitive take is likely to remain counterintuitive is that a bank run for deposits above €100,000 – or even a bank stroll – is still a bank run. Deposit insurance lessens the chance of people trying to take all their money out, but it still happens, and it does nothing for the money you have above that value.

The chance of contagion is looking slim – although it is still the case that if you're a Portuguese depositor you're likely to be sitting markedly less comfortably than you were last week – but the situation in Cyprus itself is by no means solved yet. If the trust in the country's banks and politicians isn't restored, there will be worse ahead.

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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.