Friday, 5 April 2013

EUROPE: Lessons learnt from Cyprus's bailout

Investors keep getting burned in betting on members exiting the euro zone, let alone the break-up of the European Union's common currency. And economics experts keep getting their predictions wrong. The simple reason: The EU, on the economic front as well in other policy areas, is at its heart a political project. Events continue to show that despite the painful strains of major economic duress, this commitment remains intact.

Despite the messy manner in which its member state governments deal with crises -- chaos largely explained by institutional reasons rather than by incompetence -- the EU and the euro are here to stay.

The EU certainly has some major restructuring to do in terms of establishing the necessary banking and fiscal unions, and it rarely looks good in a crisis. But it will carry on muddling through and, in a wider historical perspective, continue to provide its citizens with a considerable range of benefits -- just as it has for decades, particularly since the advent of the single market nearly 30 years ago.

The EU made major mistakes in the bailout of Cyprus, to the point that it almost failed completely. Even worse, the whole affair demonstrates a distinct inability to act strategically when the stakes are high. Repercussions from this episode that haven't been captured in the headlines will continue to reverberate for years. And, it should be noted, it was politics that accounted for bringing back the specter of crisis, not economics.

The Cypriots are certainly responsible for a range of significant mistakes on their own. For years the government artificially propped up its economy with illicit capital inflows primarily from Russian businessmen. It also allowed its banks to grow too large and didn't develop other elements of a standard Western economy.

Conventional wisdom suggests the newly ruthless approach of EU finance ministers toward Cyprus -- relative to past euro-crisis bailouts -- was due to citizens in Germany and elsewhere being fed up with having to stomach a lifeline being thrown to yet another profligate Southern European member state.

A more probable explanation, however, is the bitterness Northern European political elites still nurse from the early 2000s, when Greece blackmailed the EU into bringing Cyprus into the club. Greece threatened to veto Scandinavian aspirants should Cyprus not be allowed in. A healthy dose of anti-Russian sentiment no doubt played a role as well.

These primarily political factors led EU policymakers to a commit a glaring economic mistake -- that of seeking to implement a one-time levy on depositors, including insured accounts holding less than €100,000. The EU seemed not to realize that investors would see this as an EU money-grab by fiat. And it brought back a euro crisis that many had thought was largely over.

It was an abject error, and completely unnecessary. The EU was so bent on putting its boot on the Cypriot neck that it neglected to think through the acute danger of setting off bank runs around the region by violating its own banking deposit guarantee. As an example of group think, it was a thing of beauty.

Despite a final deal that preserved the bank deposit guarantee, the genie has escaped the bottle. And once genies are out, they don't go back in. Installing a banking union has become much more difficult as a result.

In strategic terms the EU hurt not only Cyprus and itself, but also the interests of the US and other allies in the West. Europe pushed Cyprus directly into the arms of the Russian government. Not only did this hurt the prospects for its own deal, but it gave leverage to Moscow in the process.

More important still, however, by forcing Anastasiades between the rock of a forced bank levy and the hard place of seeking assistance from Moscow, the EU seriously undermined him domestically precisely when the West was about to reap the benefits at long last of a fairly pro-Western Cypriot president, crucially necessary to overcome sour relations with Turkey that continue to undermine NATO relations, EU relations, NATO-EU relations, and US relations with both.

To top it all off, a peace deal along the lines of the Annan Plan for a final resolution of the 40 year-old Cypriot divide -- the prospects for which had improved with the election of Anastasiades -- has seen its prospects diminished.

It is a myth that Anastasiades alone was responsible for at first wanting to impose a levy on savings accounts below €100,000. The Germans, after all, were complicit and actively in support, despite subsequent denials from Berlin. But it is also a myth that Germany was alone in pressuring the Cypriots. The Dutch, Finns and Austrians were equally adamant, as were the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (meaning the US cannot completely escape blame either). Each bears a degree of responsibility for this debacle.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: Getty Images/AFP