The EU’s latest step to “solve” the Eurozone crisis is the pillaging of the savings stored in Cypriot banks. It’s not hard to see the various harmful implications – a collapse of confidence in bank saving in Cyprus itself, a blow to the already miniscule levels of confidence in banking elsewhere in the EU, further reductions in bank capitalisation as savers realise the mattress is the safest place for the cash and so on.
One aspect of the affair that has yet to be widely considered, though, is the opportunities this offers to Russian foreign policy. Russians are the largest group of foreign savers in Cyprus (some legitimately, others less so), and the Russian government has loaned billions to keep the faltering Cypriot state and banking sector afloat.
Now, with Cyprus plunged into a new crisis, Putin’s Kremlin is reportedly “considering” the generous step of extending the existing loans and possibly offering more. The question this raises is simple: what will the Russians want in return for their kind helping hand?
The answer is disturbingly self-evident. Only this morning, the Russian navy announced it was to establish a new, permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean – the first since the post-Soviet retreat of the early 1990s.
At the moment, the Russians have a naval facility in Tartus, a port in Syria. Their shameful solidarity with Bashar al-Assad has been motivated at least in part by the desire to keep a foothold in the Med, but their ally’s position of power is now in doubt. At any time the Syrian regime could fall, and be replaced by a government of rebels who are unlikely to look kindly on hosting a naval base for the chums of the dictator they have just unseated.
So the Russian Mediterranean Naval presence needs a new home. Cyprus seems the natural place – it’s at the Eastern end of the sea, close to allies in Syria and potential enemies in Israel in the event of a conflict with Iran. Most compellingly of all, Cyprus is broke – and evidently ready to do just about anything for cash.
When the Eurozone’s fans say the single currency protects our security, I’m not sure a new Russian naval base on our doorstep was what they had in mind.
The polls for today’s Italian General Election have been clear for quite some time. Mario Monti, the EU’s pet technocrat, was going to get a welcome kicking in a popular rejection of unaccountable, top-down government from Brussels. Silvio Berlusconi, clambering from the grave like a permatanned Dracula, was going to be roundly beaten in both Houses of Parliament by the Leftist “Common Good” coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani.
Well, it seems the pollsters shouldn’t have been so certain. Early voter samples by TV station RAI in the key battleground of Lombardy suggest that while Bersani is leading in the Lower House, Berlusconi may be on track to be the biggest political player in the Senate – meaning he will have the power to gridlock the Left’s plans. Cue all sorts of impacts on the stability of the Euro and its so-called recovery…
If RAI’s numbers are correct, and Berlusconi really is going to hold the Left to an effective draw of one house each, what has happened to make the polls so far off?
The UK General Election in 1992 holds some of the answers. The polls predicted a big win for Kinnock and the Labour Party, but on the day the Tories won out (not, arguably, to the long-term benefit of the centre right in Britain, but that’s for another day).
The explanation was simple: people lied to the pollsters.
It turned out that the human element still persists in polling – plenty of voters either wanted the Tories to win or feared the consequences of a Labour victory (or both), but were too embarrassed to tell a stranger from a polling company “I’m voting Conservative.”
The same may have happened in Italy – quite plausibly, given the very public pillorying Berlusconi came in for after his disastrous handling of Italy’s sovereign debt. Bizarrely, that would mean that the Italian equivalent of John Major in 1992 might be Silvio Berlusconi today – not a comparison anyone ever expected to be drawn.
It seems that supporting Silvio, perhaps the world’s most consistently brash political extrovert, has become a very private matter. If his supporters have gone to the ballot box to put him back in the limelight, I doubt he’ll care about how proud or public they might be.
When Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, comedy songrwiter Tom Lehrer declared that satire had become obsolete. Today we learn that the Peace Prize has been given to the European Union - accordingly, satire has now been dragged out of her retirement home and beaten by riot police.
In case you were wondering why the EU could possibly be given the Nobel Peace Prize, here is a short, pictorial summary of the peace Brussels has brought to Greece and Spain in the last 18 months:
Appropriately, the key to understanding the EU’s continued failure to solve the Eurozone crisis lies in Greek mythology. The second of the Twelve Labours of Hercules was the slaying of the Learnean Hydra – a many-headed beast that had the nasty and inconvenient habit of growing two new heads every time you cut one off.
This meant that many who tried to slay the Hydra ended up exerting themselves only to make it even more ferocious and threatening. Hercules eventually triumphed because he discovered that one of its heads was mortal – only by cutting off that one could the Hydra be destroyed.
So it is with the Eurozone crisis. Politicians, observers and – most sinfully – the markets are so desperate for all the effort going into each “solution” to be worthwhile that they convince themselves that just cutting off one more head will solve the Euro’s problems.
Time after time, though, they have chosen the wrong head.
First, simply announcing no Eurozone country would go bust or could go bust was meant to do the trick. It didn’t.
Then bailing out Greece from its short term liquidity crisis would solve all of the problems. It didn’t.
After which, Greece’s austerity package being voted through their Parliament would provide a panacea. It didn’t
Then bailing Greece out again was going to put the crisis to bed once and for all. It didn’t.
Then the “bazooka” deal would unite Europe in defeating the fiscal threat. It didn’t.
Last week, only George Papandreou ditching his referendum proposal and resigning would bring the nightmare to an end. It didn’t.
Now, they have seized desperately on the idea that Berlusconi’s resignation will calm the markets and stop the carnage.
It won’t, and it won’t for a very simple reason: Berlusconi is not the problem.
Of course, he isn’t the solution, either – he’s a clownish figure who lacks the authority or the desire to solve Italy’s problems – but any idea that he is the only thing that stands between Italy and fiscal stability is a fantasy as deranged as his self-perception of being God’s gift to women.
The sad thing is that there is such desire to believe that cutting off each of these Hydra’s heads will end the crisis that the markets briefly buoy when each one approaches, only to fall back further when reality intrudes again.
With each false hope and every false promise, the credibility of the next “solution” is reduced, the panic becomes deeper and the cost of borrowing rises. For a stark illustration of this problem, just look at the trouble the EFSF is having raising money from the international markets. As Liberal Conspiracy point out, it is now paying 4 times as much to borrow as it was in June. It isn’t just Greece and Italy that international lenders such as China view as too risky to lend to - it’s the supposed solution mechanism for the crisis.
The underlying problem – the true mortal head of this economic Hydra – is that membership of the Euro has straightjacketed these economies from defaulting or devaluing to address their sovereign debt problems. But political leaders find this so unpalatable in their world of “ever closer union” that they turn a blind eye to it, and keep lopping off other heads, increasingly bewildered at the sprouting of more and more in their place.
Let me make a prediction (which is a risky business, but hey). If Berlusconi does resign, the markets will briefly rise only to dip swiftly once it becomes clear that weeks of political wrangling or even a General Election will be necessary to even form a new Italian Government, still less implement a viable austerity plan. This will radically increase the cost of Italy’s borrowing even further, leading perhaps to a crisis in other Eurozone banks and further bailouts in Benelux and France and almost certainly to an attempt at direct budget control by the European Commission.
Even Hercules was not strong enough to keep chopping off the wrong heads indefinitely. To find the right head and dispatch this Hydra before being eaten the Eurozone countries need to get on to the real issue quickly, and escape their state of denial.
The attention of the global media has been fixed – unusually – on Slovakia this week. With 16 of the 17 Eurozone nations already having committed their taxpayers to supporting a vastly increased bailout of Greece, Slovakia was the only one left standing. On Tuesday, their Parliament voted to reject the EU’s bailout plan, thanks in large part to an insurgency led by the Freedom and Solidarity Party – commonly known in Slovakia as the SaS – which led to the collapse of the governing coalition.
The SaS are a true classical liberal party, combining free market economics with civil libertarian principles such as drug legalisation. What is it that led them to bring down the coalition government of Slovakia rather than vote for the Greek bailout? What will happen next? To find out, I conducted a brief interview with my friend Juraj Droba, one of the 21 SaS MP sitting in the Slovakian Parliament and Vice-Chairman of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Square brackets denote my own explanatory notes.
Q. Can you sum up for British readers why you and your parliamentary colleagues have voted to reject the bailout motion?
Many reasons – the moral hazard, the fallacy of trying to solve indebtedness with more debt which will only prolong the agony, the principle that poorer people in responsible countries must not pay for irresponsibility of politicians in richer countries. This money would not go to people, but to the shareholders of the French and German banks – these profited heavily over decades from high-interest risky loans guaranteed by the governments.
Q. Why do you think it was you and your colleagues in Slovakia who said No when all the other Eurozone countries said yes to the bailout?
We are a new party, composed of people who were previously successful in the commercial sphere. Our bottoms are not glued to the political chairs, we are ready to leave anytime and even sacrifice our mere political existence for a principle as noble as pointing out the main trobules with EFSF and ESM [the Euro bailouts].
Q. Is there any polling evidence of what the Slovakian voters think about the issue? Will this have an impact on the next general election in your country?
Over 50 percent majority did not want Slovakia to participate in the bailout. The impact on the early elections in March 2012 is questionable, several other issues are more salient than a somewhat remote and complicated EFSF.
Q. The EU is famous for making people vote again if they come out with the “wrong” answer. Will the parliament have a second vote on the issue – and if so, how soon will it be and what do you think the result will be?
Unfortunately, yes. It will happen this Friday and it will be carried with the votes of the opposition. The price we pay is early elections, because our Liberal party was removed from the government coalition.
Q. If the rest of the Eurozone goes for bailouts and further fiscal integration, can you foresee a day when Slovakia would want to leave the EU to go its own way?
No. Slovaks as people are rather euro-optimistic, as evidenced in polls. We still believe that euro is a good project. We are not against the common currency, we are against irresponsibility of governments and constant breaking of the basic rules…
Q. Have you or your colleagues been pressured from outside Slovakia to change your position and vote for the bailout – either from EU institutions, businesses or foreign politicians?
All of these combined. SaS leader Richard Sulik had a private meeting with Guido Westerwelle [German Minister for Foreign Affairs], the Prime Minister was harshly pushed by Merkel and Sarkozy, we as Liberals received a decent and polite letter from our partners from the ELDR [the European Liberal Democrats, who both the SaS and the UK Lib Dems belong to], foreign diplomats mentioned the issue at every possible meeting occassion with any of us, etc. The pressure even increased after this week’s No vote.