What does ‘Euro’ mean?
Is a euro in a Cypriot bank, locked down by withdrawal limits and capital controls, the same as a euro in an Irish or French bank? Is a euro sitting in, say, a payroll account in Laiki with a balance of more than €100,000 (and subject to an unspecified “haircut” on Thursday) the same an “Irish euro”?
They’re both euro, both promises to pay the bearer, but honestly, do you have a preference? Of course you do. You’d prefer your money to be outside Cyprus. You’d prefer an Irish euro to a Cypriot one. So they’re not the same. Do we even have a single currency now, then? What does the Euro mean?
And how did this happen? At least in part, it happened because all the finance ministers of the Eurozone sat around earlier this month and let the Cypriots leave the room with a proposal to make depositors pay for bank losses, including insured depositors with balances of less than €100,000. They rowed back on that part, but you can’t undo the damage of their having taken it seriously to begin with. Imagine a snowed-in family just once agreeing “if we get really hungry, we can eat the rabbit”. You can take that back all you like – everybody knows the rabbit’s not safe any more. He’s not just a pet, he’s protein. Depositors aren’t just protected customers now, they’re also a source of money to save the bank.
We sat back and let that happen – all the Eurozone countries did. We let deposits in Cyprus undergo that subtle shift in meaning. We let their banks be closed for ages, with devastating impact on small firms and families. We let their tax rate be changed. We let them hang out there, hoping it would save us, the rest of this uneasy union. Where does that leave solidarity, in this European Project under our presidency?
Just now, you’d prefer an Irish euro to a Cypriot one. Remember that feeling, because, as Martin Niemöller might have written were he more interested in money, and living in more peaceful times, “First they came for the Cypriots …”