To the European Commission headquarters this morning for a briefing with Michel Barnier, the Frenchman who is commissioner in charge of banking. The press pack wanted to talk about – what else? – Cyprus. But Barnier wanted to talk about his green paper on the long term financing of the European economy.
Which made for the usual pantomime: the journalists sat and scrolled through emails while Barnier read out his plans on how to finance the EU economy without depending so much on banking (good luck there, commissioner). When he finished, the reporters looked up and started the questions about the banks in Cyprus.
Reuters asked how long capital restrictions would last in Cyprus. Barnier began to answer in French, so most of the journalists clapped on their earphones to hear the simultaneous translation. But even having most of his audience sitting there looking like Resistance wireless operators couldn’t make the Frenchman shift into English. Point of principle.
Still, he – or at least, the earphones – assured us the restrictions were in place ‘exceptionally and temporarily.’ Indeed, the restrictions and limits may only last ‘a few days.’
Wham, my hand was up at that one: I wanted to know how many days are ‘a few days?’ My Russian oligarch readers (you never know) need to know when they can shift their millions out of the Bank of Cyprus. But damned if Chantal Hughes, the eurocrat running the press conference, would take my question, not then, and not before she said: ‘One final question,’ and didn’t call me.
I did the obnoxious thing. I just sat through all of the commissioner’s final answer with my hand up, because nobody else had followed up on the Reuters question. The commissioner looked uncomfortable, the eurocrat looked defensive. When the commissioner finished, the eurocrat leant into the mic, looked at me, and said that if I had a further question, the commissioner would answer it outside.
I climbed over my colleagues, and shot past the line-up of commission spokesmen waiting to deal with the next session. One said to me as I passed: ‘You think you’re special.’ Well spotted, Monsieur.
So I had the Frenchman backed against a pillar. We shook hands. I said ‘I find your word “few” so interesting. How many is few?’
Take your pick of the flurry that followed: très court … l’esprit et la lettre…finalement… justification temporaire et proportionnée. An advisor behind him echoed ‘temporaire.’ That was it, except a last sad little line from the commissioner as he disappeared up the escalator: N’oubliez pas mon livre vert.
Which tells you the only thing worth reporting about his answer was the lack of a number. When I caught up with Madame Hughes about how long the restrictions on capital can remain, what it came down to was: ‘Can’t say.’
So all I can suggest to any Russians reading is: stay sitting in your Lear Jet at Larnaca with the engines fired up. When the restrictions get lifted, your opportunity may turn out to be très court et temporaire.