NPR’s “Marketplace” reported Monday that the European Union planned to impose a tax on bank deposits in Cyprus of up to 10% to bail out the country’s banks. This unprecedented action threatens to undermine confidence in banks throughout the eurozone periphery, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. As Louise Cooper told Marketplace, “(This move) says that your savings are not necessarily safe in a bank. What this risks is bank runs.” Indeed, we could be literally hours from seeing bank runs in one or more of them.
What’s the motivation for introducing such a risky policy? Cyprus is a tax haven; in fact, it’s a favorite destination for the Russian mafia. Therefore, it’s not enough to simply impose austerity on Cyprus; ordinary Cypriots have to give up some of their bank savings, too. So says the EU.
Methinks they doth protest too strongly. It’s not like there aren’t already tax havens in the EU, starting with the City of London and Luxembourg. Plus, for varying purposes, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ireland. This is not to discount Germany’s efforts to pierce Swiss banking secrecy, which the United States should emulate (i.e., it should pay more informants to cough up information on U.S. tax evaders). Nor do I underestimate the difficulty the EU has had in getting its Savings Tax Directive passed in order to help stamp out intra-EU tax evasion, and the long way it still has to go.
Here’s the thing: Cyprus was already a tax haven when it joined the EU in 2004. Germany, and the other 14 members of the EU at the time, knew this when they voted to approve Cyprus’ membership (new members require a unanimous vote). If they didn’t want to mess with another tax haven in their ranks, any one of them could have stopped it. But they didn’t, so they are in no position to claim innocence now. Instead, they are going to try to extract money from ordinary Cypriots (potentially exempting the first 100,000 euros for each depositor) rather than going after the bankers like Iceland did.
Let the bank runs begin!