Cyprus bank crisis: Mounting EU pressure
- 21 March 2013
- From the section Europe
It is possible to be lulled into thinking that the Cypriot crisis is not acute. Yes, the banks are closed but the cash machines are being refilled.
The queues for money are small. Yet beneath the surface the economy is under strain from the closed banks.
Petrol stations won't accept credit cards any longer. Restaurants want cash.
Stores won't take cheques. Businesses cannot buy or sell. Deals are not being completed. And the banks won't open until Tuesday at the earliest. Cyprus will have been 10 days without working banks.
In truth the country is surviving on a lifeline from the European Central Bank.
It is keeping at least two Cypriot banks afloat. If they collapsed the banking system would soon follow. But the ECB is running out of patience. Yesterday a senior ECB official warned that they could not continue supporting banks without them being solvent - and that cannot be assumed, said the same official.
And today the ECB said it would continuing the emergency funding of Cyprus until Monday. Thereafter the funding could only be considered "if an EU/IMF programme is in place".
The Cypriot President, Nicos Anastasiades, has underlined the urgency by saying he wants a decision "on a Cyprus rescue to be made today (Thursday) at the latest".
During the day the government will unveil what it calls its Plan B. The challenge is to find nearly 6bn euros (£5bn; $7.7bn). That is needed to trigger 10bn euros in rescue loans from the EU and IMF. Without that funding Cyprus will go bankrupt.
The first question is whether the new plan will still involve any levy on bank accounts. When the first deal was announced it was the raid on deposits that triggered protests.
The Cypriot government is boxed in here. If it goes after those with deposits of over 100,000 euros then that could trigger the big Russian investors withdrawing their funds. If that happens it deals a fatal blow to the Cypriot banking sector. One-third of the deposits (30bn euros) are held by Russians.
This has been the source of tension with Germany. Berlin says it cannot ask its taxpayers to bail out Cyprus if that involves protecting wealthy Russians. Chancellor Angela Merkel is insistent that they must make a contribution.
There is a bottom line for Europe's leaders. There will be no bailout unless the Cypriot debt is made sustainable. For that to happen a chunk of debt has to be written off - nearly 6bn euros of it. The original plan was to make depositors take the "haircut" - a slice from their savings. Angela Merkel also believes the banking sector is too large and also unsustainable.
In its hour of need Cyprus is looking to Russia. Under discussion: extending the pay-back term of an existing Russian loan of 2.5bn euros, made in 2011, and whether Russian could buy into a troubled bank. And if Russia plays ball it will strike a hard bargain - perhaps securing an interest in Cyprus's offshore gas industry, yet to be developed.
There are two questions which will be asked of Plan B. Will it convince the EU and IMF that it really does raise the 6bn euros which will allow the Europeans to agree to a bailout? Secondly, will the Cypriot people - angry with the EU and Germany - accept a deal which might still involve depositors being punished?