ECB uses legal word games to dodge bailout accountability

The European Parliament sent a questionnaire to the Eurozone bailout “Troika” members (ECB, IMF, and European Commission) so as to better understand their specific roles in the 4 lending programme countries (Ireland, Greece, Portugal, and Cyprus). The ECB has published its response. One set of questions and answer is as follows –

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Send the envoy

There could only be one song for this post*. I had “Iran follow-up post” on my to-do list, but I wasn’t expecting the follow-up to be basically “dealio!”. The US statement is here, which carefully emphasises that the sanctions infrastructure remains in place, and the document itself is here, via Fars News Agency.

As far as the nuclear content goes, it addresses the build-up of more centrifuges and requires the mixdown of the existing 20% enriched uranium or its conversion to reactor fuel. It freezes work on the Arak plutonium reactor, and importantly asserts that Iran will be able to enrich up to reactor levels in the future. It seems to be stronger than expected in terms of verification and monitoring, providing for a lot of new inspections and a joint commission on monitoring. I’ll wait for Arms Control Wonk, but Mark Hibbs seems to think it’s sound.

In the light of this now-classic post, it doesn’t get rid of the isotope program with the Tehran research reactor but it does provide guarantees that it’s not acting as a cover for work on a bomb. If the 20% HEU is converted into fuel for the reactor, and the IAEA inspectors verify that, it can’t also be further enriched for use in a bomb. That’s the key issue in their model and the deal addresses it.

It also provides for a year-long process towards winding up the whole issue and ending the UNSC involvement, as well as for future cooperation on getting Iran some proliferation-resistant nuclear power stations. The AFOE official view is nicely summed up by this tweet from Conor Friedersdorf:

and also this one from Chris Bryant MP:

As far back as 2009, we made the choice to stand out against the conventional wisdom on this particular point. Hey, the conventional wisdom was represented by a horrible bunch of kéké clowns, it wasn’t hard. Further, the main challenge then was getting the EEAS set up and functioning and she did actually come from setting up a substantial new institution in the UK. We came back on this one last year. Anyway, here’s the victory roll, in the Grauniad. Rod Liddle, your boys took a hell of a beating.

Catherine Ashton

*The Wikipedia page for Philip Habib is a strong case that whether Warren Zevon intended the song sincerely or satirically in 1982, he certainly meant it after 1987.

No questions asked?

As noted by FT Alphaville the other day, the ECB has released its guidance for the use of Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) by national central banks (NCBs) in the Eurosystem. Among the rules

As a rule, NCBs inform the ECB of the details of any ELA operation, at the latest, within two business days after the operation was carried out. The information needs to include, at least, the following elements: …

the prudential supervisor’s assessment, over the short and medium term, of the liquidity position and solvency of the institution receiving the ELA, including the criteria used to come to a positive conclusion with respect to solvency;

Since Irish and Cypriot taxpayers have ended up on the hook for ELA provided to busted banks by their central banks, aren’t they entitled to now see this information?

Is The Perfect Always And Everywhere The Enemy Of The Good?

Against a backdrop which offers an eerie parallel with events which took place somewhat to the North more than 30 years ago, Catalonia is now threatening to separate from Spain. In so doing the region seems to be putting at risk both the future of the host country and beyond that the outlook for the Euro currency and the process of European unification. Continue reading

Q&A: The Catalan Way explained

Why are Catalans taking part in a human chain this Wednesday? The Catalan newspaper Ara has produced a series of questions and answers in English which should explain everything you want to know about why the human chain is taking place today.

What is the ‘Via Catalana’?

The ‘Via Catalana’ (The Catalan Way) is a political demonstration which will take place this September the 11th. Inspired by the Baltic Way — a human chain formed by up to two million people on August 23 1989 across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — its aim is to create a 400 km long chain which will cross Catalonia from north to south. 400.000 people have signed up to take part in the human chain, although organizers hope that the actual turnout will be at least twice that figure. People will be asked to join hands at exactly 17:14 (15:14 GMT). The chain, which runs along highways, roads and city streets, will come to an end at 18:00 (16:00 GMT). If successful, it will be one of Europe’s largest ever demonstrations, following in the footsteps of last year’s march in Barcelona, when up to 1,5 million people walked through the streets of the capital asking for independence, the country’s most massive rally ever. Continue reading

Spies for Europe.

We’ve suspected for some time that the French and German governments’ refusal to take part in the Iraq war had something to do with their access to independent overhead imagery satellites. Briefly, France and Germany did (with the HELIOS and SAR Lupe programs respectively), and didn’t take part at all. Spain and Italy had some access to French imagery and had advanced plans to get their own. They made a limited commitment. The UK, Australia, Denmark, and the ROK relied on the United States and were, in a phrase that should be better known outside Australia, all the way with LBJ. Turkey didn’t have its own, although it has since acquired a satellite from Italy and it did have liaison staff at the little-known EU Satellite Centre, but it probably had ample intelligence from human sources.

The original statement is in this Ken Silverstein piece (see this blog post of mine from 2006):

“They say everyone else was wrong,” said this former official, “but we conditioned them to be wrong. We spend [tens of billions of dollars per year] on signals intelligence and when we reach a conclusion, the people who spend less than that tend to believe us. They weren’t wrong, they chose to believe us. The British, Germans, and Italians don’t have all those overhead assets, so they rely on us. Historically they have been well-served, so they believe us when we tell them the earth is round. The French have their own assets—and guess what? They didn’t go with us.”

Guilhem Penent, of France’s IFRI and IRSEM thinktanks, writes in the Space Review as follows:

Regarding outer space, France’s main objective is to perpetuate its autonomy and national sovereignty. As sovereignty is the state of determining itself based on its own will without depending on other nations, satellites are, first and foremost, the guarantee of France’s autonomy in assessment and thereby in decision-making.

The decision not to follow the US in 2003 was thus taken by then President Jacques Chirac in accordance with intelligence based for the most part on Earth-imaging satellite HELIOS 1, whose findings were in contradiction which was being said at the UN Security Council. When the war in South Ossetia broke out in 2008 between Russia and Georgia, then President Nicolas Sarkozy, as chair of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU), used images provided by HELIOS 1 and HELIOS 2 to deny Russia’s allegations about the withdrawal of its troops when those troops were actually progressing southward.

This is the first public confirmation, I believe, that the French did in fact stand out of the Iraq war because HELIOS imagery showed that the WMD claims were nonsense. IFRI, and even more so IRSEM, are organisations with the status of something like CSBA in the States or RUSI in the UK, so this should be taken seriously.

Chris Williams, who pointed me to the TSR piece, contrasts the British concern about sovereignty with regard to things like bananas, beef, and birth certificates, with the French equation of it with independent verification technology. He has a point. (So does Dan Hardie in comments there, who points out that perhaps the French could have benefited by worrying more about their influence over monetary policy, something no British Eurosceptic has ever omitted to worry about.) I’ve repeatedly argued this elsewhere.

There are a couple of points here. I feel a degree of contradiction between my suspicion of mass telecoms surveillance and my enthusiasm for overhead imagery. Perhaps that’s just the conviction that however much fuss I kick up, it’s unlikely anyone will burn limited delta-vee to get pictures of me, but you can’t say that about X-KEYSCORE. With more consideration, I think it’s the terms-of-trade in the relationships I described in this post that worry me most of all.

From a British point of view, the deal was fairly simple. The UK would concentrate on signals intelligence and would share everything with the US, and would stay out of the satellite business. In exchange, the US would share back their satellite product. We know that on at least one occasion, during the Falklands War, this didn’t happen. Later, the UK started a major project, known as ZIRCON, to build a signals intelligence satellite. This went overbudget badly, but got a surprising degree of support from Margaret Thatcher for reasons of sovereignty vis-a-vis the US, before being abandoned when the Americans instead offered a share of the targeting slots for their equivalent system in exchange for cash.

But the ZIRCON strand of the story doesn’t cover imagery. It seems that the national interest was very poorly served by this part of the deal – the implicit sigint-for-imagery trade – to say the least, both in Iraq and possibly later in Afghanistan.

Since the 1980s, the cost of satellites has fallen sharply, notably due to the work at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. in Guildford. The UK had a very quiet test project between 2005 and 2009, and going ahead with an operational system on a similar basis to the Germans’ was being discussed openly by the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills as late as early 2011. Since then, it’s all gone quiet over here…so what did happen to that project? And do we need more Europe here?

I think the answer to that is much more clearly Yes than it ever was with regard to the Euro. The main objection from the UK side (and from Atlanticist Europe more broadly) is that the Americans might not share as much stuff with us. But this makes less sense on close examination. In so far as it is a market-like, bargaining relationship, we would be in a stronger position. In so far as it is a relationship of integration among allies, the alliance would be better off as a whole and might be more allied. In so far as it is a feudal, tributary relationship, it would be less so. (You’ll notice that Penent alludes to this in the TSR article.)

And this doesn’t take any account of the quality of the information received. It seems that the information the US shared with its partners in the intelligence special relationship before Iraq was worse than useless – in fact, functionally defined, it was disinformation. Its recipients were less informed after receiving it than they were before. Even a small increase in independent capability might have the useful effect of keeping both parties more honest.

On refrigerants and Cypriot euros

Capital controls continue in Cyprus. They’re getting more refined, but that could make them easier to retain. No one is having much success raising concerns about what this means for European integration.

On the other hand, if you buy a new Mercedes SL and try to register it in France, as of earlier this month, you can’t. But with that impediment to European integration, all hell breaks loose!

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High-Trust and Low-Trust Societies, Banks, and Europe

Pawel Morski:

A “banking system responsive to local needs” quickly becomes “piggy bank for local politicians”.

Well, local politicians are elected, after all. Democracy is a thing. But I know what he means. That Spanish caja that was run, into the ground, by the Catholic Church. That kind of thing. WestLB back in the day when it financed William Hague’s best friend buying all the pubs and the Ministry of Defence married quarters and Peer Steinbrück was its regulator, before it blew up and the explosion threw him all the way from Hannover to Berlin and he got to be federal finance minister, SPD leader, Mr Prudent McBluebollocks an’all.

Does Neal Ascherson really not know about HypoVereinsbank?

I think the operational question here, certainly as far as the UK is concerned, is “are we a low-trust or a high-trust society?” It works for the Germans (for some values of works, and except when it doesn’t work), it doesn’t work for the Spanish (except of course when it did).

Sparks = high trust, cajas = low trust. We like to think we are a high-trust, low-corruption north European country, but I often think the history of the UK post-1979 is the history of an emerging low-trust society.

Of course, when we were canonically much more trust-y, Jimmy Savile was raping everything in sight, the Met Police was basically our biggest organised crime gang, and the MOD was perfectly happy to test nuclear weapons on our own soldiers. But then, trustful Germany has had some pretty decent scandals. Do you remember before Wolfgang Schäuble was All Better Now, when he was responsible for a massive illegal party financing system linked with the Elf-Aquitaine scandal? ‘Course you do. And further back, when he did precisely the same thing with German arms manufacturers?

But trust is an interesting concept. If you knew for a fact the people you dealt with were honest, you wouldn’t need to trust them. Trust and betrayal go together. High-trust societies are ones where people behave as if they could trust each other, and that choose to deal with the inevitable abuses of trust in certain ways. Low-trust societies are ones in which people behave as if they cannot trust each other, and especially, as if there was no realistic hope of sorting out abuses of trust later.

I actually wonder if the distinction is really about what happens after a breach of trust is discovered. J.K. Galbraith’s bezzle, the inventory of undiscovered embezzlement in an economy, is a universal phenomenon but the means of dealing with it differ dramatically. When an aeroplane crashes into the ground, in the UK or, say, the Netherlands, the first people on the scene after the fire brigade are the AAIB inspectors, whose mission is to establish the facts. In Italy, or Greece, the first people after the fire brigade are the police, come to arrest any of the crew who survived. The distinction is telling. If you can’t expect justice, and you can’t expect the truth, you might as well practice cynicism like you practice an instrument, as a skill or even an art.

In a sense, social trust is an ideology. We choose to believe that our neighbours are basically decent people in a civilised society, or that of course they’re all the same and all crooked, but wouldn’t you be if you had the chance, and so you better look after number one. And if it is an ideology, it is part of the political sphere and it can be changed. Now there’s something for you – hope. But I fucking hate hope and hope-mongers, so…ah.

One way of looking at Francois Hollande’s campaign for the “moralisation of politics” is an effort to do just that, to keep France from becoming even more of a low-trust society than it already is. Of course, whether France is a Latin country (stereotypes: Catholics, inflation, tourists, Picasso, bureaucracy, conspiracy politics) or a northern one (stereotypes: Vikings, Gothic buildings, electrical engineering, the Republic, international modernism, ENA) is a cliche up there with whether Britain is facing Europe or the high seas or whether Russia is in Europe. But perhaps there’s some truth to it. Is it…spreading?

Low-trust societies, I think, emerge when the norms imposed by the elite are both compulsory and also impossible, and especially when the elite doesn’t seem to practice them itself. You could put it another way: it’s Berlusconi’s Europe, and we’re just living in it.


Introductory Statement by Jörg Asmussen, Member of the Executive Board of the ECB, in exchange of views with the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee of the European Parliament on financial assistance to Cyprus –

If the sovereign had shouldered these massive recapitalisation needs, debt would have risen to 145% of GDP. This would have critically endangered public debt sustainability. At the same time, traditional ways of burden sharing by the private sector bank creditors were limited, given little junior debt outstanding in banks.

The Eurozone has an effective* traditional way of burden-sharing with non-depositor creditors?

In particular, it was decided to cover the capital needs of the two largest banks exclusively through the own contributions of uninsured depositors and senior and junior debt holders. The creditors of the two banks would not be made worse-off than they would have been in the case of liquidation, which would have been the alternative to the programme. 

The Eurozone has a criterion that bank debt writedowns can be justified as long as the creditors are not worse off than they would have been under liquidation?

If only Ireland had thought of these things in 2010!

[*i.e. that doesn't endanger debt sustainability]