If Europe Doesn’t Stand Up

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Italian by Il Sole 24 Ore.

Like what happens to less intelligent creatures, there was also a sudden disavowel of paternityin the Cypriot mess. No one in Europe admits responsibility for the project of forced confiscation on all bank deposits, also the more modest ones. A proposal that, while necessary, will not survive to its temerity and is putting in danger the stability of the Euro area. On the other hand, the confusion about responsibilities is due to the unbalanced decision-making mechanism that has characterized the last years of the European crisis.

Facing an emergency, Berlin sets the political priorities; the Eurogroup decides the least tricky technical solution for the governments; the heads of state communicate the decisions to their citizens, attributing the responsibility to Brussels; finally the EU commission and the European Central Bank execute orders, at times sanctioning countries and almost always taking the blame.

The anti-European short circuit is assured because the level at which decisions are made is never at the level where democratic choice happens. In fact, the problems arise when a National Parliament meets, as happened yesterday in Cyprus. The citizens circle the Parliament and the parties accuse Brussels or Berlin, also hiding the national responsibilities.

Contrary to what is said, for example, the confiscation of Cypriot deposits is a national fiscal measure. It does not violate the insurance of balanced bank accounts in the EU, that spring into action when a bank fails. It is a tax that will be discussed at the European level and that is conditional on European support, but will be done at the national level. However, in a certain confusion of roles and in a certain mess of solutions it was easy for the government and the Cypriot Parliament to turn it down like an error committed entirely by others.

Clarifying to citizens the allocation of responsibilities between Cyprus and countries in the Euro area is difficult because the transparency of the European decision-making process is really poor: there exist no memos of the Eurogroup meetings, whose last leader was chosen because he was not very garrulous; the heads of government then agreed bilaterally over telephone; above all a true public confrontation does not exist, but there are 17 members and 17 borders.

The only common thing is the confusion of blame that, if it was not tragic, would be funny. Try to follow the thread: on Sunday, all accused the German minister Wolfgang Schaublre for the proposal of forced withdrawal. Schauble however claims that he is opposed, with the IMF, to withdraw on small Cypriot money savers. Berlin, in fact, unloads the responsibility on the government of Nicosia, that (for fear of a bank run) did not want high withdrawal on the rich. But it accuses also the EU Commission and the German member of the ECB, Joerg Asmussen, who had observed that a bank run was already happening and that they needed to freeze accounts. Cypriot president Anastasiades retorts that he was blackmailed by Berlin and by the ECB, which would have cut funds that keep the country’s banks alive. The Commision denies having defined the proposal and finally the ECB denies directly and categorically: the blame is on the political negotiations held in Brussels. All the institutions, however – IMF, EU, ECB – are together on having had to put a limit of 10 billion on the assistance to Nicosia. Officially to not bring Cypriot public debt to over 140% of the GDP, but in reality to appease crediting governments and to limit their expenditure. Are you lost? You have reason to be.

But we are still far from having unraveled the tangle. Behind the negotiation with Cyprus, there are in fact others that are more complex. The most important regards relations with Russia which leads with around 20-25 billion Euros deposited in Cyprus, one of the most obscure financial markets in Europe. To not touch the small Cypriot depositors, there is a need to withdraw 15-16% of big deposits. But Moscow had just loaned 2.6 billion to Nicosia, which now, pushed by European partners, they have to withhold like a tax on Russian deposits.

The European relationship with Russia is based on big interests and huge suspicions. Berlin first wants to impose on Cyprus the closure of financial channels with Moscow. It is a negotation of such implications from having to be leader of leaders of government or of ministers abroad rather than financial ones. But Europe has no real common foreign policy, least of all in the Euro area. The result is that Cyprus will end up asking Moscow for help. Hypothetically, it could end by depending on Russia so much that it detaches from the Euro area, opening the gate to the first devastating exit of a country from the Euro. Yet a European political initiative was possible: a battle against off-shore finance would collect the consensus of the vast majority of European citizens and would be difficult for Cypriots, facing European support, defending the abuses of their banks. As is seen, whether in foreign policy or in institutional assets, denouncing the lack of European political unity is anything other than an appeal to abstract principles of a dated Europeanism. However the Cypriot crisis shows also that the will of Europeans to help themselves in exchange for common policy (for example the fight against money laundering) is exhausted and weak bringing into doubt also the solidarity that will be indispensable to constitute a bank union. That is the project with which is necessary to avoid, like in Cyprus, a banking crisis sinking a country. A project on which depends the survival of the Euro.

It is estimated that Cyprus has until June to choose to form a tie with Moscow or fail. A somewhat long time that may keep the Euro area in check and may also coerce it brutally to change its strategy one more time.