The deadline sent Cypriot leaders scrambling to find fixes, and by Thursday night they were discussing restructuring the nation’s worst-off bank and imposing capital controls that would sharply restrict depositors’ ability to withdraw money, an effort to prevent bank runs.
Because Cyprus is small and its banks aren’t so wired into the international system, a failure isn’t likely to trigger the kinds of global problems feared if Greece or another euro nation were to leave the currency union.
But a departure of Cyprus from the euro zone would be a stunning blow to the crowning achievement of Europe’s post-World War II effort to unify its warring nations. The euro was intended to be so ironclad that there are no procedures for countries to back out of the currency bloc. But leaders have feared that if one country leaves, pressure could increase on others to follow suit, quickly destabilizing the entire project.
The IMF and other euro-zone countries have offered to lend Cyprus about $13 billion, but they expect the country to come up with $7.5 billion on its own through taxes, government spending cuts or other measures to help restart a banking system that is essentially broke. A plan to raise the money by taxing bank deposits — including tens of billions of dollars held by Russians and other foreigners — collapsed this week in the Cypriot parliament.
The prospect of a Cyprus exit fueled an intense hunt for options — from a nationwide bank restructuring that would put the largest Cypriot banks out of business to more-unusual proposals such as mortgaging the property of the Orthodox Church, selling off natural gas rights or simply asking for donations.
Panicos Demetriades, governor of the Central Bank of Cyprus, called on lawmakers Thursday to vote immediately on a legal framework to rehabilitate the country’s banking sector. The government will also create an Investment Solidarity Fund, which is intended to appeal to “the patriotism of Cypriots” and draw on contributions from ordinary citizens, businessmen and foreign investors.
“We will have a program of support for Cyprus by Monday,” Demetriades said earlier in the day.
Those details, however, were overshadowed by the larger issues — of the ECB, a developed-world central bank, flexing its muscle over a nation’s leaders and of the possibility that the euro zone, after years of insisting otherwise, may finally have to admit that membership to the currency union is not sacrosanct.