Cyprus counterintuition part two: "Britain's next"

Are we heading down the same road?

I've already touched on one counterintuitive claim about Cyprus – that, far from being the Germans crushing the little guy, a wealth tax is actually the most progressive way out of the hole – but here's another one: Cyprus isn't that unique at all.

The Independent's Ben Chu turns against the prevailing trend, which is to argue that Cyprus, with its massive influx of questionable foreign funds, extended and deliberate exposure to Greek banks, tiny and inflexible economy, and a currency which it has no say in, is one-of-a-kind. Instead, Chu argues, there's someone who should be watching carefully: us.

We’ve nothing to be smug about here in Britain.

This chart (below) from Albert Gallo, an analyst at RBS, shows that we’re not that far behind. Despite all the deleveraging of recent years our banking sector still has assets and liabilities equal to 450% of our GDP.

Remember this next time you hear from one of the banking industry lobbyists how vital it is for the UK’s economic future to have a massive banking sector. Remember Cyprus.

Chu is slightly channeling Osborne, there (which isn't a nice thing to say of anyone, and I'm sorry). Our Chancellor made one of the earlier comments comparing Britain to Cyprus, and was pilloried for it. To be fair to Chu, Osborne's claim, that Cyprus is "what happens if you don’t show the world that you can pay your way" and is why Britain has "got to retain the confidence of world markets", is utter nonsense, while Chu's point is more interesting.

The problems in Cyprus have literally nothing to do with retaining the confidence of the world markets. Instead, have to do with buying a crapload of Greek debt in 2007, and then having a banking sector which owes billions in a currency Cyprus doesn't control.

On the face of it, that's not a circumstance which applies to Britain either. But the other aspect of the Cypriot problem is that the size of the country's banks is completely out of proportion two the size of the country's economy, and, yes, the UK's banking sector is similarly bloated – though still only half the size of Cyprus's as a proportion of GDP. I made a similar comparison in the heady days of 2011, pointing out that the UK is more similar to pre-crisis Iceland than Greece.

But the comparison just doesn't hold water beyond that. Because Cyprus's problem isn't just a bloated banking sector – it's also all those stupid moves its banking sector made, and the fact that Cyprus doesn't actually control the currency it now needs to recapitalise the banks into. (It's also, more technically, the fact that most of Cyprus's domestic law bonds are held by the Cypriot banks, which renders a partial default counter-productive). As a result, the real comparison between the UK and Cyprus is this one, from the FT's Joseph Cotterill:

That's the cost of fixing the banks' mistakes as a proportion of GDP. Cyprus is having to spend 60 per cent of its GDP on that. For comparison, that is roughly equal to America having to spend $9trn, almost 400 times the cost of TARP.

Cyprus is in a uniquely shitty situation. It's a cautionary tale for having banking debt's seven times higher than GDP, but it's more a cautionary tale about not being Cyprus.

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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue