Cyprus is paying a painful price for bowing to international capital

Being controlled by global financial interests does not benefit ordinary people, their economy or democracy, writes the Jubilee Debt Campaign's Tim Jones.

A small country is being brought to its knees by a huge banking system which has recklessly been lent money from overseas. Controls on money leaving the country have had to be introduced. The size of the debts owed mean there is no way the government can simply bailout the banks. For Cyprus in 2013 read also Iceland in 2008.

Both small islands let themselves become home to casino banks many times the size of their actual economies. Banks borrowed money from overseas, lending it on again in even greater quantities. But when these loans could not be paid, the banks were bust, threatening the savings of all those with accounts in the banks, including normally Icelanders and Cypriots who had no idea their money was being put on a global roulette wheel.

In 2008, the Icelandic government could simply not afford to bailout its banks. Instead it sought to protect savings of domestic Icelanders, a limited bailout, whilst letting the reckless banks go bust to their foreign creditors. Iceland inevitably went through a crisis, but its economy is now growing, unemployment falling, and its experience measures favourably against that of Ireland, Spain and even the UK.

Iceland’s approach is a good lens through which to try to assess what is happening in Cyprus. The original plan of last week was madness, hitting domestic savers however small their savings. Now the deal rightly protects Cypriots who had been told by the EU that their deposits up-to €100,000 were safe.

Depositors over €100,000 will see their claims taken into a bad-bank, from which they could get back very little. Reckless lenders to banks via bonds will also take a hit on their loans, unlike under the original plan. This appears to be fair; there is no reason why Cypriot or other taxpayers should bailout reckless lenders such as rich Russians, hiding their money away in a secretive tax haven. In many ways it repeats the Icelandic experience. However, by hitting Cypriots as well as foreigners, it could have major ramifications for Cyprus’ businesses. It is also questionable whether the EU is only allowing this approach this time because it is rich Russians who are set to lose out, not German, French and British banks.

And so we come to the "help" from the EU through bailout loans. Cyprus’ government cannot afford to protect all the deposits under €100,000, even though the EU has brought in a collective rule to that effect. Not having its own currency, Cyprus has no ability to bring in inventive policies to keep money moving round the economy. But by taking €10 billion of loans from the EU and IMF, Cyprus is taking on a further debt of 60 per cent of national income, on top of the over 60 per cent already owed, and with national income set to crash. These loans are not payable, yet as with Greece, Portugal and Ireland today, or Africa and Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, huge suffering is about to be imposed in the name of trying to pay.

True assistance from the EU would be to provide this support as grants, a policy which would be fair given that it is to protect the EU wide deposit protection policy, and necessary because of the existence of the single-currency. The European Central Bank could create the one-off money to do so, with no visible impact anywhere else.

Cyprus is not Iceland. The single currency, and the failure to discriminate between domestic and foreign lenders to banks, means the crisis for the Cypriot people is set to be far worse. The EU should be giving real help to prevent the destruction of the economy and many peoples lives.

Much debate in Cyprus has seemed to be driven by the fear of what will happen if all the foreign financiers leave. But it is the very same people who have driven the country into crisis. The controls on moving money out of Cyprus need to be rigorously enforced to give some protection, just as they were in Iceland, and in Argentina following its default in 2001, and Malaysia during the Asian Financial Crisis. Thankfully the EU is turning a blind eye to the Lisbon treaty which prevents all regulations on the movement of money between countries. But the pity is that other such regulations were not used to prevent the reckless lending into the country in the first place.

Regulations on the movement of money between countries were common-place in the decades after the second world war, a period when there were hardly any debt crises. After they began to be removed in the 1970s, such crises have become common place, affecting every continent from Latin America and Europe, to East and Central Asia and now Europe today.

The crisis in Cyprus shows how damaging the banking industry can be when it gets too large, just as in Iceland, Ireland, Spain and the UK. For the country to emerge from this crisis, Cyprus, like so many other countries, needs to get control over its banks in order to get them to invest in productive industries, rather than being part of a global speculation and tax avoidance ring.

Being controlled by global financial interests does not benefit ordinary people, their economy or democracy. Whilst Cyprus is going someway to making reckless lenders share in the pain, the failure to truly discriminate between domestic and foreign debts, and the lack of real help from the EU, means much suffering lies ahead.

Photograph: Getty Images

Tim Jones is policy officer at Jubilee Debt Campaign. Jubilee Debt Campaign is part of a global movement demanding freedom from the slavery of unjust debts and a new financial system that puts people first.

Photo: Getty
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The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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