independent

Friday 18 April 2014

James Downey: No good solutions to Cyprus, only a choice between bad and worse

After all, who cares about the Cypriots? There are only a handful of them. They themselves dreamed up the mad scheme to tax small savers' bank deposits. They invited the Russians to invest in their banks, and everybody knows how dodgy Russian money is.

So we need not get excited if, over the weekend, they save themselves by accepting whatever conditions their European "partners" impose on them or, to the contrary, defy Brussels and Frankfurt and leave the eurozone and perhaps the EU itself?

Wrong. There is plenty to get excited about.

The Cyprus crisis is a prime example of the consequences of the European Union's mishandling of the economic meltdown. That it has happened in a tiny country is irrelevant. Many devastating wars have originated in places of which hardly any foreigner had ever heard.

Denying the danger of contagion would be laughable if it were not so dangerous. The same is true of failing to understand the role of Russia.

Russia is still an important country and a huge military power. It has interests in the region, the most sensitive in the world. It has a naval base in Syria, a country at present in flames and without any prospect of putting out the fire.

As to the Russian money, is there no dirty money, or perhaps one might say imperfectly laundered money, in Ireland? Or Britain? Or, whisper it, Germany?

Perhaps the whole issue of money laundering will be sorted out in the course of the reforms which will accompany Angela Merkel's glorious project of European fiscal union. Or perhaps not. Europe's performance in the five years (so far) of the global crisis has been less than glorious.

Yesterday, on RTE radio, Professor Brigid Laffan said that there were no good solutions – only a choice between bad and worse. That sums it up.

And Professor Laffan is no eurosceptic, but a leading europhile. She must be horrified by the kind of language in current use in reference to the Cypriots, like "bringing them to heel". Once upon a time, we heard about banks "too big to fail". Now we hear Cypriot banks called "too small to save".

But the affair of the tax on deposits has implications far deeper and wider than the fate of Cyprus or than any unwarranted smugness.

All advanced societies rest on a social contract, written or unwritten, between rulers and ruled. Fundamental to such societies are the political influence, and the relative prosperity, of the middle class.

Part of the unstated deal is a guarantee that the authorities will not seize money or property without due cause. This principle was breached in Cyprus. The people protested vehemently. In this part of the world, some wondered if there was any precedent. Then they remembered. In one European country, the rulers had raided the people's pensions. This country is Ireland.

They can live with the kind of restrictions which allegedly will be imposed on people who get mortgage debt relief: no foreign holidays, no fee-paying schools, no Sky Sports. Many can live, and many will have to live, with more serious diminutions in their lifestyles. But there is one possibility which they cannot face with equanimity, if at all. They cannot endure the thought that their children will be less well off than themselves.

For Irish parents, there is one tried and trusted – and easily accessible – method of avoiding that. They will see to it that their children get the best possible education before they emigrate.

They will weep to see them go. But they have the consolation of knowing that most of them will prosper.

Those who stay will pay another sort of price. Every emigrant drives yet another nail in the coffin of trust in the government – any government.

Distrust will not lead to revolt, much less revolution. We are much too docile. Anyway, the potential revolutionary leaders will be in Dubai or Sydney. We will probably confine ourselves to establishing a new party which will go the way of all the others.

But what of the other west and central European countries?

There is a thriving neo-Nazi party in Greece. Hungary has a far-right government. Bigger countries are not immune. Silvio Berlusconi, for example, has risen from the political and legal tomb.

Following the inconclusive Italian election, serious people called the country "ungovernable".

Angela Merkel, often absurdly depicted as some sort of tyrant, is really just another politician obsessed with winning an election. Yet we all depend on Germany for leadership. Will she realise that a tiny Mediterranean country has put up a danger signal for herself and everyone else?

Irish Independent

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