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Global Economy

Why some hesitate about the SWIFT exclusion

The Polish opposition leader and former EU Council President Donald Tusk does not mince his words: "Those EU governments that have blocked tough decisions have brought shame on themselves," Tusk scolded on Twitter, referring to the previous refusal to let Russia go Exclude SWIFT system. And he specifically mentions Germany, Hungary and Italy.

"What else has to happen?"

But there is also clear criticism in Germany: Green politician Jan Philipp Albrecht speaks of a "massive wrong decision". He is energy minister in Schleswig-Holstein, incidentally succeeding Robert Habeck.

And the former Green Minister of State in the Federal Foreign Office, Kerstin Müller, asks on Twitter: "What else has to happen for a sweeping package of measures to be decided?" And she explicitly connects this question with the hashtags #Bundeskanzler and #ABaerbock.

Who do sanctions hurt more: Russia or us?

Her party colleague Jürgen Trittin, on the other hand, understands Germany's reluctance; the former federal minister now sits on the foreign affairs committee of the Bundestag. You always have to be careful not to harm yourself more than others with sanctions, said Trittin on rbb's Inforadio.

He relies on the measures that have already been decided: These would prevent Russian banks from processing their payment transactions in Europe and ensure that Russian state-owned companies could no longer finance themselves as before. That, according to Trittin, would in fact amount to the same thing as a possible blocking of SWIFT and would not have the negative consequences that a SWIFT ban would have for Germany.

SWIFT ban: "Extremely sharp sword"

The CDU chairman Friedrich Merz, who weeks ago described a possible SWIFT exclusion as a "nuclear bomb for the capital markets", remains skeptical. He now speaks of an "extremely sharp sword" and warns that such a sanction would cause considerable damage to the global economy.

Merz adds the following qualification on ZDF: "Should the EU Commission make a proposal to use SWIFT as a sanctions instrument and exclude Russia, Germany should not say no."

Important for foreign trade

SWIFT is basically a communication system and is used to inform banks about payment flows across borders – transfers from private customers abroad also run via this system with the help of the so-called BIC number.

Above all, however, foreign trade benefits, since imports and exports have to be paid for across borders. The Bavarian Finance Minister Albert Füracker (CSU) fears negative consequences for companies in Germany: If Russian companies can no longer process payments via SWIFT, German companies might not get any more money, Füracker said in the Regensburg press club.

Alternatives to SWIFT: fax, telex, suitcase of money?

Of course, business circles are under no illusions: business with Russia, which grew again in 2021 – German companies sold goods worth 26.6 billion euros to Russia – is likely to collapse for the time being. A quick exit from SWIFT would primarily affect companies that are currently still waiting for payments from Russia.

Theoretically, even after a politically enforced exit from SWIFT, cross-border payments would still be conceivable, explains Jörg Krämer, chief economist at Commerzbank: In this case, outdated forms of communication such as fax and telex could be used again.

According to Krämer, the real reason for the hesitation of the European partners in the face of a possible exclusion of Russia from the SWIFT system is the high energy dependency on Russia. Finally, US President Joe Biden pointed out that he had refrained from taking this measure at the urging of the Europeans.

The West has still not sanctioned all Russian banks. The reason behind this is probably that the Europeans want to continue buying gas: "You have to pay for that. And if you can't do it by bank transfer, you would have to travel to Moscow with suitcases of money," which of course isn't possible, says Krämer.

Energy dependency as reason for hesitation

In fact, sanctions against Russian gas or oil purchases are not on the West's list. The reason for this, says government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit, is that the energy supplies from Russia cannot be replaced immediately.

With regard to SWIFT, Hebestreit resists the accusation that only Germany has raised concerns. A suspension of SWIFT would also have to be well prepared, as it would have a massive impact on the payment transactions of German companies in business with Russia, but also on payments for energy supplies.

The last word has not yet been spoken

It is indeed striking: Countries that cover a large proportion of their energy needs from Russia, such as Germany, Italy or Hungary, have so far resisted Russia's exclusion from the SWIFT system. Countries like France or Great Britain, which are less dependent on Russian oil and gas, can more easily imagine such a sanction.

Of course, they are not excluded. Federal Finance Minister Christian Lindner says Russia's exclusion from the SWIFT system is conceivable if the EU members agree that the pressure on Russia can be increased further.

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