Cyprus looks for plan B

There is no plan B.

At 10am Cyprus time, the Cypriot government started to hammer out another vote on whether they have a plan B to present to the European Central Bank. If they do not have an alternative to the mooted deposit tax by Monday, the bank will cut off emergency liquidity assistance to Cyprus' two biggest banks, plunging them into bankruptcy, and putting Cyprus on a path which will inevitably lead them to an exit from the euro, and possibly the EU altogether.

Cyprus does not, currently, have a plan B.

The plans to be put in front of Parliament cover the winding up of Laiki, one of the two troubled banks (the other is the Bank of Cyprus), splitting it into "good" and "bad" banks, hopefully ensuring that the depositors in the good bank – those with insured deposits under €100,000 – do not immediately withdraw their money once the banks reopen.

That proposal has received a "cautious" response from eurozone finance ministers, according to the Financial Times, but doesn't go anywhere near solving the problem.

In giving the Monday deadline, the European diplomats and ministers who ultimately hold sway over Cyprus also clarified their position about what an acceptable solution would be, and in doing so made things much, much worse.

We already knew that their initial proposal to the Cypriot government offered a loan of €10bn and required the government come up with a further €7bn itself in order to fund the €17bn needed for recapitalisation of the banks. But, reports Felix Salmon:

The stated reason why Europe won’t lend more than €10 billion is that Europe refuses to allow Cyprus’s debt level rise above a certain level.

That means that, at a stroke, most of Cyprus' alternative solutions are bust. It can't take a loan from the Russian government, it can't borrow from its own pension funds, it can't confiscate deposits and replace them with post-dated bonds.

The EU is basically confirming to Cyprus that its options are:

  1. Pass the deposit tax.
  2. Find some other tax which will get €7bn – a little under a third of GDP – in a weekend.
  3. Leave the eurozone.

In a way, though, the background situation has got better for Cyprus in the last week. On Monday, the country was deathly afraid of the deposit tax because it could have signalled the death of Cyprus as a destination for offshore banking. That appears to have been the reason why it took the disastrous choice to "spread the pain" by hitting insured depositors with a tax on top of uninsured.

Now, it doesn't have to worry about that, because its role as an offshore banking destination is dead already. It is, bluntly, inconceivable that the "solution" to the crisis, whatever it is, won't result in deposit flight from overseas depositors. The only hope left is to ensure that it doesn't also result in Cypriots moving their money offshore.

With that in mind, it may turn out to be the case that the best solution for Cyprus is the one it was offered at the start: soak the (largely foreign) rich with a 15 per cent deposit tax, look after the poor's deposits, and move on to trying to find an alternative basis for its economy.

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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era