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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”