By Roberto Savio*
Rome, April 2013 – The story of Cyprus story is an excellent example of how inadequate media coverage has now become. Very few will have understood what has really happened, and what its implications are. Following events, without any background or placing them in their contexts, is one of the main reasons for the decline of media as windows on the world, and for having informed and therefore active citizens.
To explain what has happened and what is likely to happen now requires three angles of analysis: how the Cyprus crisis came about, how it stands in the context of the banking sector worldwide, and what its implications for Europe are.
Let us start from Cyprus and, more precisely with the Republic of Cyprus. In fact, when speaking about the Cyprus of the banking crisis, we are referring to three-fifths of the island of Cyprus, the Greek part. The other two-fifths are a separate political entity, the Turkish Cyprus that only Turkey recognises.
When Greek Cypriot nationalists and elements of the Greek military junta declared the union of the island with Greece in 1974, the Turkish army invaded the northern part of the island to protect the Turkish population, a substantial minority. The result was a serious blow to the island’s economic development.
Greek Cypriot losses of land and personal property in the occupied areas were substantial, and they also lost Famagusta, the only deep-water port, and the Nicosia International Airport. The GDP of the Greek sector dropped by one-third between 1973 and 1975. Today, the Republic of Cyprus is a small territory of just over 5,000 km2, and a population of 860,000 people.
With only tourism as its main economic perspective, the Republic of Cyprus chose to become a financial centre by making it attractive for companies that decided to set up on the island. It offered generous rates of 6-7% per year on deposits, and a very light 10% tax on foreign companies (even less than the 12% of Ireland).
There were not many other choices and when, on 1 May 2004, Cyprus joined the EU together with nine other countries, everybody in Brussels knew that finance represented 45% of the GDP of the small Greek part of the island.
By becoming part of the EU, Cyprus became very attractive for investors from outside Europe, especially for Russians who wanted to take away money from the uncertain Russian banking system, and now about 60,000 Russians live on the island.
The banking sector grew so much that its total deposits reached nine times its GDP. In 2008 alone, 40.7 billion dollars were funnelled into Cyprus through loans and bank deposits, amounting to 161% of the Cypriot GDP that year.
Gambling on Investments
But the Cypriots bank, like all banks after the elimination of the separation between deposit banks and investment banks (the fateful decision by US President Bill Clinton in 1999, under pressure from the financial lobby), used the money from its deposits to gamble on investments that could give a higher yield.
So they invested more than 4.7 billion dollars in Greek bonds, which were giving a high return. But those bonds were based on fake data provided by Greek authorities about their financial health. And everybody in Brussels, Bonn, Paris, The Hague and elsewhere knew that!
Meanwhile, all banks became involved into two successive global crises: the derivative-mortgage crisis that originated in the United States in 2008, and then Europe’s sovereign bond crisis (the bonds emitted by states were not backed by healthy national budgets).
The financial markets went into panic, and banks worldwide were stuck with bad investments. To make a very long and complex story short, let us remember that worldwide over 4 trillion dollars went into stabilisation of banks and stimulus initiatives.
And then, in May 2010, Greece asked for help from the EU, followed by Ireland in November 2010, then Portugal in 2011 and Spain in June 2012. The bailout for Greece was 172. 6 billion euros, Portugal 78 billion, Ireland 67 billion and Spain 41.3 billion. The bailout for Cyprus was established at 10 billion euros. This amounts to 0.06% of Europe annual economic output.
Why Then Did Cyprus Become So Important?
And the entire problematic Cypriot banking system would, if combined with 126.4 billion euros in assets, makes it smaller than the 11th largest German bank and the 44th largest bank in Europe.
So why did Cyprus become so important, and why did it shake Europe’s foundations? And why did all this happen after the famous declaration of the director of the European Central Bank (ECB), Mario Draghi, that the ECB would never let the euro sink, stopping all market speculations against the bonds of European countries?
Here, we need some time to look into the Cyprus affair.
On 25 June 2012, the then President of Cyprus, the Communist Dimitris Christofias, makes the first request to the euro zone for financial assistance.
On 29 November 2012, the first memorandum of understanding on financial assistance for Cyprus is drafted, barely noticed in international circles. The EU waits to act. Why?
Because Cypriot elections are coming, and hopefully a Conservative government will take over. Christofias is considered too close to the Russian investors, and he obtained a loan of 2.5 billion dollars from Russia, bypassing Brussels.
On 11 January 2013, European Conservative heads of government, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, arrive in Limassol to support opposition leader Nikos Anastasiades ahead of general elections. Anastasiades is a successful investment lawyer, who has several Russian billionaires in his portfolio.
On 24 February, Anastadiases wins the presidency in a run-off.
On 1 March, the new government is sworn in, and Michalis Serris, a former finance minister and World Bank official, becomes financed minister. He was also a member of the board of the second bank of Cyprus, the Popular Bank (Laika Bank in Greek).
Then on 15 March, Cyprus reaches a bailout deal with the Troika (International Monetary Fund, EBC and the EU), for a 10 billion euro bailout. But, to reach its requested target of 17 billion, Cyprus must find the remaining 7 billion internally. From where? From its banking sector, of course.
The President, the Russian, and the Troika
The Cypriot president wants to defend the big Russians investors at any cost, so he presents a plan to make a one-off levy of 6,755 euros on deposits up to 100,000 euros and 9.9% on deposits over 100,000 euro. The Troika and finance ministers accept this proposal. This was a major mistake, as the EU solemnly decided to protect all deposits up to 100,000 euros by insuring them with ECB backing, and leaving deposits over this amount uninsured.
A large campaign, originated by a leaked German secret service report, and relaunched by German and British media, presents Cyprus as a haven of laundered Russian and drug money, and denounces any Cypriot resistance to the Troika requests as protection of dirty money and investments.
In actual fact, Cyprus has obtained high marks from Mokas, the official Council of Europe body that evaluates anti-money laundering measures, as one of the few countries in full compliance. And it scores 408.5 on the Financial Secrecy Index, against 1879.2 for Switzerland, 669.8 for Germany and 616.5 for the UK.
In this framework, Anastadiases goes back to Cyprus, and, as we all know, the Cypriot parliament rejects this plan, with not one vote in favour. Anastadiases goes back to negotiations and on 25 March a new plan is agreed, winding down the Cyprus Popular Bank, the second largest lender, transferring its positive assets to the Bank of Cyprus, the largest. Insured deposits (up to 100,000 euros) will be untouched, but uninsured deposits will be taxed, up to the level of coverage required for the bailout.
Big Money Fleeing the Island
Close to four billion dollars had already left the island at the time of negotiations, before banks were closed, and some estimate that uninsured deposits will have to be taxed up to 80% and all shareholders (136,000 people) and bondholders will lose everything, around 5,000 people will be fired and international companies will leave Cyprus. Strict control on capital is introduced, with many restrictions, strangling the island’s economy.
Now, let us draw the main conclusions. It is widely known that Germany was the main enforcer of this new approach to strict severity, where for the first time not only bank holders and bondholders but also depositors were called on to contribute to the bailout.
But then, the new chairman of the Euro group that brings together Europe’s ministers of finance, Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, explained in a lengthy interview that this is a “new template” which will be used for futures bailouts.
Bank investors will be required to participate, and no longer will European countries alone pay for the mistakes of banks. Of course, this created a wave of concern in the weaker countries, like Spain and Italy, met by a soothing “the Cyprus case is exceptional” from the European authorities.
The European Central Bank
But then Klaas Knot, another Dutch member of the ECB, said that eurozone banks needed to clean up their balance sheets by winding down loss-making operations. “Firstly, there has to be transparency about losses in the banking sector. Secondly, banks have to wind down their loss-making operations,” Knot said.
And then, ECB sources started to admit that this was going to be the basis for future bailouts. German finance minister Wolfang Schauble declared: “Cyprus is living with a banking sector with low taxes and favourable laws that is completely overdrawn and that makes Cyprus bankrupt. This business model is not sustainable.”
The same position was taken by the ECB board member Jorg Adsmussen (former German finance minister), who represented the ECB in the negotiations. So, it was clear that there was an agenda being pushed by Germany and the Netherlands which, together with Finland, represent the fiscal hawks of the Eurogroup. Largely absent in the negotiations were the ministers of other countries.
Now, it is certainly upsetting that so many supposedly brilliant personalities did not realise the message they were sending to Europe. They were basically saying:
1) Deposits are no longer safe. If in the first negotiation, the Troika accepted to tax ALSO deposits below 100,000 euros, this meant that no deposits in European banks are safe in case of a crisis. Bondholders and shareholders make investments in a bank, and they enter a financial game in which they can lose. But depositors enter a bank to protect their money not to speculate.
To wipe out those deposits is an ethical issue, especially if – without their knowledge – the bank gambles with their money on the market and thus becomes responsible for its demise. Depositors are, in other words, victims twice.
As Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman says, this is like putting up a big neon sign: bring your money to the safest bank in the safest countries, like Germany or Switzerland. But this will increase the internal imbalance between the countries of South Europe and North Europe. Is this in the interests of the whole Europe?
2) To avoid capital flight, restrictions on capital are now in place in Cyprus that will last a long time. But freedom of movement of capitals was a very central European idea. This idea has been now undermined. And so has the idea of a European currency. There are now two euros, not one. The Cypriot euro, for example, can be spent freely only in Cyprus.
3) The destruction of Cyprus as a financial haven is an understandable idea. But what about the people? There will now be a drop in GDP of at least 20% in the immediate future. The EU will have to do another bailout, as was the case with Greece. Again a large part of a population will go into suffering and misery. Will the hawks take the same moral attitude of intransigence?
4) The image of the ability of governance of the Troika has taken a serious hit. After the collapse of the first proposed agreement (the one which also taxed insured deposits), a sad show of leaders all trying to download the responsibility of this mistake to the others has undermined the legitimacy and trust of the present leadership. And it has added fuel to those who complain about the opacity and unaccountability of the EU.
5) This handling of the Cypriot crisis has made very clear that Germany is the uncontrolled decider on European questions, and acts according to its views, with little ability to listen others. Commerzbank’s chief economist Jorg Kramer has already suggested “a one-time property tax levy and a tax rate of 15% on financial assets” to save Italy from probable bankruptcy. Of course, this looks like a not too subtle invitation to shift Italian deposits to German banks.
6) Russia was never involved or consulted, in spite of its massive presence in Cyprus. In Moscow, this was seen as further proof of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s containment of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s access to Europe.
Slovenia and Malta… Next
To complete this part on Cyprus, let us make clear that if the financial model is not acceptable, next in line are two other European countries: Slovenia and Malta.
The IMF says that Slovenia will need to issue three billion euros in bonds this year. Since yields have shot up from 4.5% to as high as 6.4% as a result of the Cyprus rescue, that could be a costly order. And notice that these are dollar bond yields; the country is taking a currency risk to obtain these funding rates. The country may be forced to seek painful assistance from the Troika. I
t is also one of the smallest members of the EU, with fewer than two million inhabitants. Like Cyprus, Slovenia’s problem is its banking sector. But it is a tame 200% of GDP, not the Cypriot banks’ 900% of GDP.
One of Slovenia’s biggest banks was one of only four in Europe to fail the stress tests (two were the banks in Cyprus now inflicting haircuts on big depositors). Non-performing loans at the three biggest banks, according to the IMF, rose from just under 16% in 2011 to over 20% last year.
That means that they are insolvent. The debt is mainly corporate debt, the result of lax lending by state-owned banks to cronies. Therefore, in the case of Slovenia, there is even less ground for pity than there was for Cyprus.
Next case is Malta. Covering just over 300 km2 of land, it has few natural resources, restricted fresh water supplies and no domestic energy sources. Until the late 1980s, the Maltese economy was heavily dependent on tourism, a limited manufacturing sector and its favourable position as a freight transshipping stopover, but that has changed radically over the past 25 years.
The government decided to develop the financial sector, and to make of it a viable alternative to Dublin and Luxembourg as a base for investment funds and operators alike.
Although the country is sometimes still referred to as an offshore tax haven or a low tax jurisdiction, neither term correctly describes Malta’s tax system. In response to a request from the European Commission that Malta abolish tax provisions that might distort competition within the EU, a number of changes were introduced in 2007 creating a tax regime that is fully EU-sanctioned.
“Malta Represents A Safe Haven For Currency Flight From Cyprus Misery”
A full imputation tax system has existed in Malta since 1948. The rate for corporate taxation in Malta stands at 35%; however, upon distribution of dividends, shareholders may qualify for a refund generally equivalent to 6/7 of the tax paid, resulting in a paid tax rate of 5%.
The financial publication The International Banker reported “Malta Represents A Safe Haven For Currency Flight From Cyprus Misery”. With the situation in Cyprus critical, Malta may play an important role for business and domestic capital flight from Cyprus and even more so for the Russians who have invested in Cyprus and are seeking an alternative international financial services centre – Malta (just a two hour flight from Cyprus) may well be key.
These facts, combined with the strength of the financial services sector in Malta make it the ideal international financial services centre for “currency flight from the misery in Cyprus”. Malta’s banking sector is already three times its GDP. But it is unclear how much money went into bad investments, and the rumours are not positive.
Then, finally, comes Luxembourg, the richest country per capita in the world. It is also a small country, with an area of 2,586 km2 and a population of fewer than half a million.
Probably it will not need any bailout because it is doing extremely well, thanks to a very cautious policy of investments. But Luxembourg is the paradigm of the model that Germany’s Schauble and the Troika are fighting. Its financial sector is 21.7 times its GDP. It has three billion euro of offshore capitals, of the 20 existing worldwide.
And it ranks in the Financial Secrecy Index at 1621.2 against 406.5 for Cyprus. It has created the SPF (“Société de gestion de patrimoine familial”) regime, which does not pay taxes on capital, on revenues or on VAT, and is only subject to an annual subscription tax of 0.25% levied quarterly on its share capital. Already Luxembourg authorities are raising voices against the argument that financial havens are not sustainable and legitimate.
New Bailouts Looming on the Horizon
But it is clear that new bailouts are looming on the horizon and this brings us to the second point of this Cyprus post-mortem. It is incomprehensible why our political system agrees to place so much suffering on his citizens without facing a very simple fact: the banking system as we know it is intrinsically fragile, and will continue to create one crisis after another.
This because there are two problems that we do not address: one is the bad investments made by banks worldwide. Nobody knows exactly how much is hidden in bank budgets. Some estimates talk of two trillion, others of three trillion. The IMF estimates that there are 800 billion dollars of toxic titles still in existence, after all the efforts to clean up bank budgets.
The second is clearer. Until 1999, we did not experience this state of permanent financial crisis. That was due to the fact that until then the deposit banks were not allowed to use their funds for speculation. The deposits were held in a stable system, and the bank did what they were born to do: take deposits, and make loans to families or enterprises on the basis of a cautious evaluation of the quality and feasibility of the loan, with a view to its collaterals.
But since Clinton eliminated the distinction with the investment banks, all banks have gone into the market, inventing fateful mechanisms for increased return, like derivatives and other many high-risk investments. That has brought about a division between finance and production. Finance has taken on its own life: make revenues, even at a high risk, to be able to give absurd bonuses to its executives.
Today, for every dollar which comes from production of goods and services, there are 40 dollars moving in financial transaction. And of course, it makes more money to invest in financial markets than to loan to families and enterprises.
Banks, Subject to Criminal Investigation
The banks have become entities that are frequently subject to criminal investigations, something that never happened before. They have become a systemic risk for the international community. It would take pages and pages to report the cases in which they have been found guilty of criminal activities.
Just to report what has been going on recently. In Spain, 92 financial executives are in court for fraud, linked to the 37.700 million euro they have received of taxpayers’ money: more than what was cut in health and education spending.
In the United States, the SAC hedge fund paid an amount of 602 million dollars in a settlement to the government (SEC, the Security Exchange Commission).
In Europe, Deutsche Bank has set aside 600 million euros for legal costs, for its role in fixing the Libor rate (the interbank rate). This fraud will cost the banking sector more than two trillion dollars. Incidentally, we now know that Deutsche Bank received at least 11.8 billion dollars in US taxpayer-funded bailout money.
What did it do with the funds provided by the American taxpayers? It invested in opening the giant Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for a total of 4.9 billion dollars: a poor investment, because the world capital of gambling is suffering from the consequences of the US economic crisis.
And the bleeding continues. On 1 March, the US government gave AIG, the giant insurance company, another 30 billion dollars of taxpayers´ money; this, after the 150 billion dollars given since September last year.
But what is disheartening is the declaration given by Attorney General Eric Holder before the Senate that there is a reluctance to pursue legal actions against these firms for fear of destabilising the markets.
“It does become difficult for us to prosecute when we are hit with indications that if we do … bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy,” he said. “It has an inhibiting influence, impact on our ability to bring resolutions that I think would be more appropriate.”
The subsidy and its effects remain entrenched and continue to distort the free market. And if justice acts, the banks fight back.
In New York, 15 banks are fighting a ruling in the US mortgage case, where they have been summoned for selling billions of dollars in subprime mortgages that soured, causing banks and investors to incur huge losses. That was the start of the global financial crisis which has left millions suffering in the world. Now, who has been appointed as the new head of SEC?
Mary Jo White, who has spent the last decade in private law practice defending banks, including JP Morgan, which lost a billion dollars on the London exchange through gambling beyond reason. And in the House of Representatives last week, seven bills were approved in a committee by 31 to 14 explicitly designed to expand taxpayer backing for derivatives.
Who Will Put the Genie Back Inside the Bottle?
By now, is clear that the financial mess is due to lack of political leadership. Nobody dares to put the genie back inside the bottle.
As an example of what we have lost in political leadership, let me quote a part of a speech given by former German Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt on 4 December 2011 at the SPD Party Conference in Berlin.
At that time he was 94 years old. “At all events, the members of the euro currency union should work together to introduce radical regulations for the common financial market in the euro currency area.
These regulations should cover the separation of normal commercial banks from investment and shadow banks; a ban on the short selling of securities at a future date; a ban on trading in derivatives, unless they have been approved by the official stock exchange supervisory body; and the effective limitation of transactions affecting the euro area carried out by the currently unsupervised rating agencies …
Naturally, the globalised banking lobby would again move heaven and earth to prevent this. After all, it has thwarted all the far-reaching regulations that have been introduced so far.
It has deliberately engineered a situation in which its herd of dealers has put European governments in the predicament of having to constantly invent new ‘rescue mechanisms’ and to extend them by means of ‘leverage’. It is high time something is done about this. If the Europeans have the courage and the strength to introduce radical financial market regulation, we have the prospect of becoming an area of stability in the medium term. But if we fail in this respect, Europe’s influence will continue to decline ….”.
How Short Can Memory Be
This brings us to how memory is short. Sweden did exactly this. When its banks went bankrupt, they were temporarily nationalised, their shareholders and bondholders were wiped out and boards and management fired. Then the states restructured and recapitalised them before selling them on the market, with the proceedings going back to the taxpayers, offsetting the restructuring costs. Iceland went well beyond.
The three largest banks amounted to ten times the country’s total GDP. There was no way the government could face that amount of loss. The government decided to let the banks go bankrupt. A large part of the deposits and investments were from British and Dutch citizens.
British deposits alone were 2.3 billion pounds. Of course, the UK and the Netherlands held Iceland’s government accountable, and asked for repayment, using an anti-terrorism law to freeze the UK-based assets of Kaupthing Bank, Iceland biggest bank.
Then the Icelandic government organised a referendum, and the 312,583 inhabitants voted 93% against and only 2% in favour of the British and Dutch requests. Even more, the prime minister and the finance minister were brought to court because of their inability to monitor the banks. So the UK and the Netherlands went to the court of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which last week delivered a judgment in favour of Iceland. But did you hear anything about this?
The Last Lesson from the Cyprus Mess?
And now, the last lesson from the Cyprus mess. It is clear that Europe is in a very serious crisis but there was no need to bring the IMF into European affairs. The IMF is under Washington, which has the majority of votes in that institution, and its director Catherine Lagarde has much less power than her predecessor, the priapic Dominique Strauss Khan.
The IMF staff has been pressuring in Europe for its traditional financial cure: bleed the patient, for his recovery. Countries can afford welfare and social justice if they have the means. Otherwise, a good bloodletting will do. IMF interaction has given legitimacy to the sinister bow of the EU to the financial markets, with the misery that the macroeconomic quest for balanced budgets has brought to the weakest sectors of Europe’s population.
It is by now clear that Europe is entering a serious recession as a consequence of the policies of austerity. The result: not only have right wing parties sprouted everywhere, even in countries that were examples of civism and tolerance, like Norway and the Netherlands. In the UK, the anti-Europe party is becoming a central player, and pushing Prime Minister David Cameron into a difficult situation.
By the way, let us not forget that the UK has an alternative plan to the EU, EFTA, which was based on the idea of simply creating a European free trade zone. The EU was instead a political project of European integration. When the EU was performing better than EFTA under US auspices, on the initiative of the Netherlands initiative, the UK was invited to join the EU. It did so on very special conditions, which today still make London a net recipient of European funds.
The UK has always been trying to avoid the political project and limit the EU to a free trade space as much as possible. Without London, the EU would lose an economic dimension, but certainly the political process would advance much faster, and the EU would be more homogeneous.
On the other hand, the continuous process of enlargement, in which the EU will eventually go from 27 at least to 31 countries, has obviously created a very inhomogeneous reality.
However, the process of globalisation makes clear that there are much fewer differences between a Portuguese and a Bulgarian, than between a Portuguese and an Afghan. But to recognise those common roots will require a long time of common life and destiny and the cracks are already a reality … where is the engine for unity?
Meanwhile, large populist phenomena, like Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, are also anti-Europe. And every day, governments like the Hungarian government are increasingly flouting Europe’s rules with impunity. In Cyprus, a majority led by the Archbishop Christomos II, head of the Orthodox Church, wants to abandon the euro. And in Germany, a new party has been established, with a strong professional and academic basis, as the anti-Europe party.
So, there are many centrifugal forces and a weak and unpopular European institution – the ECB – which, under German pressure, let the market attack Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, until Draghi clipped the wings of speculation by making it clear that he would not let the euro fall.
The reaction from Brussels to search for more accountability and citizen participation has been non-existent.
The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, has declared: on Cyprus, “the negotiations lacked transparency, democratic accountability and were badly communicated.”
In democracy, communication is important for participation. Most probably, Germany wants to eliminate dangerous situations before acceding to the creation of a banking union. There is no way the euro can survive if there are no authorities and mechanisms of control in place. But, until now, Germany has been wary of such structures, which automatically bring about the socialisation of crisis and bailouts.
The German reaction to its commanding role in the Cyprus bailout has been that of an offended party. Germany has already given more than 220 billion euro for the countries in crisis and nobody is grateful was the comment of a spokesperson of the German Chancellor.
Merkel and the September Elections
Of course, there is a theory that, until the September elections, Merkel cannot play a role out of sync with her electorate. German citizens feel that they did their homework and bore sacrifices by reforming their welfare and labour practices under the so-called Hartz Commission, with reforms that had a social cost.
They genuinely feel that countries who lied, like Greece, or in general the countries of Southern Europe, have low productivity, a lifestyle beyond their means, do not pay their taxes, and now want well-deserved German earnings to bail them out. This moral divide between the Calvinist and Catholic Europe is further tearing apart a very fragile tapestry. It is not easy for all to become German …
Merkel has a great responsibility. While she is doing very well as leader of Germany, she is not doing at all well as leader of Europe. She does not communicate and now that France has a “silent leadership”, she has the objective responsibility of pushing for a strong Europe.
Last week, Guy Verhoftstadt, former prime minister of Belgium and leader of the Liberal Group in the European Parliament, declared: ”Chancellor Angela Merkel must not keep pretending to her electorate in Germany that the euro is going to survive when such high interest rates are being paid (by the countries in South Europe). To this end, a partial mutualisation of existing debt is essential in order to allow countries on the periphery (a code name for Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece) to benefit from lower interest rates. Eurozone leaders cannot continue to pursue the same approach, based on last-minute, short-sighted deals, agreed behind closed doors at arduous all-nighter summit meetings.”
And Merkel should also explain to her citizens that Europe is bringing them tangible benefits. Between 1999 and 2011, Germany accrued a cumulative trade surplus with the rest of EU of more than one trillion euro. This shows how much Germany is dependent on its membership of the EU, because it can export within a fixed currency, the euro, and is therefore in better conditions than with the rest of the world.
Merkel should also remind her electorate that irresponsible borrowers cannot exist without irresponsible lenders. Germany’s banks were Greece’s enablers. Thanks partly to lax regulation, German banks built up precarious exposures to Europe’s peripheral countries in the years before the crisis.
By December 2009, according to the Bank for International Settlements, German banks had amassed claims of 704 billion dollars on Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain, much more than the German banks’ aggregate capital.
Merkel, the Bible, the Sins and the Stones
In other words, they lent more than they could afford. When these countries were bailed out by the EU, therefore with the money of everybody (albeit the Germans having given more because of their size), German banks recovered their credits. Merkel should also preach that, according to the Bible, only those without sin can throw stones; but, in 2003, Germany infringed the stability pact, by going well over the 3% deficit rule, and others had patience, and gave Germany until 2005 to fulfil its engagements.
There cannot be a strong Europe without a strong Germany. But to be a leader in a union, Germany must make sometimes sacrifices, and not expect only gains. When former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl pushed for the creation of the EBC and the euro, he had to face a very sceptical German population, which was very hesitant to abandon the Deutsche mark, the best national currency of Europe.
Yet Kohl decided that to have a German director of the EBC would have given a wrong signal, and he pushed, against his electorate, to have a Dutchman as the first director. Merkel knows that story very well, because she was discovered by Kohl, who launched her, until she dethroned him in a coup. But these were different politicians.
Let me close with another quotation from Schmidt at the SPD conference in Berlin: “If we Germans were to be tempted by our economic strength into claiming a leading political role in Europe or at least playing the role of first among equals, an increasing majority of our neighbours would mount effective resistance. The concern among the states on the periphery about the centre of Europe becoming too strong would return very quickly. The likely consequences of such a development would cripple the EU and Germany would lapse into isolation.”
After the September elections, will Merkel be able to heed that warning? If not, I am afraid that there will not be a European construction, and not much future in the new multipolar world, with new players, some of them giants, emerging.
*Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News, a personal initiative seeking to provide information that should be in the media but is not, because of commercial criteria. It welcomes contributions from everybody. Work areas include information on global issues, north-south relations, governance of globalization. The author granted permission for publishing on Human Wrongs Watch. To read all “Other News” issues click here.
**Central image: Location of Cyprus (dark green) | Author: NuclearVacuum | Wikimedia Commons