Latest UN Summit Fails to Bring Breakthrough in Cyprus Talks
Latest UN Summit Fails to Bring Breakthrough in Cyprus Talks
Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus
Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus

Latest UN Summit Fails to Bring Breakthrough in Cyprus Talks

On 22-24 January, Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders held their fifth trilateral meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon since November 2010. Even as the leaders arrived at the Greentree Foundation (Long Island, NY), however, hopes of a breakthrough were dim: both sides admitted there had been almost no progress since their last trilateral meeting in October 2011 and none of the seven negotiating issues had been resolved. With a disappointingly fruitless summit behind them – and to the dismay of an increasingly frustrated UN – the leaders now look unlikely to produce a comprehensive settlement to reunite the island in a bizonal, bicommunal federation before the Greek Cypriot-led Republic of Cyprus takes over EU’s rotating presidency in July 2012. For some, hopes of progress towards reunification rest on a possible change of Greek Cypriot leadership in 2013 presidential elections. But a main obstacle to process for decades remains: a total lack of contacts, communication or trust between Turkey and Greek Cypriots.

The stalemate leading up to Greentree was not for lack of trying on the part of the UN, which, since 2008, has been facilitating the fourth round of talks to reunify the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities on the island, divided politically since 1963 and by military force since 1974.  At the end of the previous summit at the same location, in October 2011, the UN had hoped the leaders would reach an agreement on all internal aspects of the Cyprus problem before meeting again in January. An international conference on the remaining issues could then – so the thinking went – be called shortly afterwards, followed by a simultaneous referendum on both sides of the island to approve an eventual settlement plan. The UN Good Offices mission has been much more active since mid-2011,but there is a limit to the pressure it can exert while the process is “Cypriot-owned” and “Cypriot-led”.

At Greentree, the UN had hoped to get some agreement on three core issues which had already been discussed: i) Sharing of executive  powers (particularly determining how the Presidency will be elected and will rotate); ii) Property (particularly regarding the sharing of data by Turkish Cypriots); iii) Citizenship (i.e. the issue of dealing with settlers in the north from mainland Turkey). In his statement on 25 January after the summit ended, Ban said discussions were intensive, but they achieved “limited progress”.

The UN has been giving signals that it will wind down its Good Offices mission in the absence of tangible progress in the coming months. Ban’s Special Adviser on the island, Alexander Downer, stated in early January that there were no plans for another trilateral summit, and Greentree would be a “make or break” meeting. Ban sent a letter to both leaders before the summit, saying that he thought they were reaching an impasse, and warning about the difficulties of continuing the talks when the Republic of Cyprus takes over EU’s rotating presidency in July 2012.  He also said the negotiations have entered “a final stage”, meaning that it was time for Turkish Cypriots to share with Greek Cypriots data on properties in the north, and for the Greek Cypriots to accept participating in a broader multilateral conference.

In his 25 January statement, Ban also removed an earlier precondition of reaching an agreement on the internal aspects of a Cyprus solution (including the chapters on governance, property, economy and citizenship) before holding an international conference. He said he will review the situation at the end of March, and if there is enough progress in talks (albeit without specifying criteria), he will call a conference in late April or early May. A multilateral conference – with the participation of the two Cypriot sides and Turkey, Greece, and the United Kingdom as guarantor powers, at the least – will likely involve discussions on territory (with maps and figures) and external guarantees.

Not all was lost at Greentree, however. Ban underlined some tangible progress, saying the sides had agreed to exchange data on property in the coming two weeks.

It thus seems the latest round of reunification talks remains kinetically active, but has lost most meaningful traction. If the current deadlock continues, a breakthrough might still come after the 2013 Greek Cypriot presidential elections, when a candidate ready to accept a looser federation with Turkish Cypriots could replace President Christofias. Given that there is no open debate about such a model, however, even this scenario may fail to bring the sides together in a common vision of how they see a future united republic.

One major reason that the negotiations since 2008 have never gained real momentum is the failure of Greek Cypriots and Turkey to find a way to engage or just simply talk. The result is that neither Turks nor Greek Cypriots believe the other side genuinely wants a settlement or will stick to an eventual agreement. The sides should focus on resolving this key problem if there is to be a breakthrough in 2013. The stalling of Turkey’s EU accession negotiations is another main reason behind this absence of communication, for which all sides are responsible: the Greek Cypriots for obstructive tactics inside the EU, some EU states for discouraging Turkey, and Turkey for refusing to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic and for letting its EU-related reform process wither.

Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus

A new round of talks has begun in Cyprus and the key parties seem eager to reach a settlement. However, the official goal — a bizonal, bicommunal federation — has stymied negotiators for decades. It is possible that the time has come to consider a mutually agreed separation, within the European Union, of the Greek and Turkish parts of the island.

The closest the two sides have come to an agreement on federal reunification was a decade ago under the Annan Plan, named after United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. It built on decades of work and won the support of the UN, EU, United States, Turkey, and even Greece. Indeed, any federal deal will have to look pretty much like the one hammered out in those years of intense negotiations.

Yet the reality of public sentiment bit back. 76 percent of Greek Cypriots said no to this plan at referendum. As Annan wrote to the Security Council afterwards, “what was rejected was the [federal] solution itself rather than a mere blueprint.”

Today the two sides — whose infrastructure and administrative systems are almost completely separate — are, if anything, further apart. The numbers of people crossing the border have fallen, while polls show weakening support for a federal outcome. In 2004, the Turkish Cypriot side supported the Annan Plan with 65 percent of the vote. But in 2010, they firmly voted back to power a leader whose whole career has been dedicated to a two-state settlement. 

Miracles may happen — and there are many on the island who remain desperate for a settlement — but my judgment is that any federal deal will have an even tougher time succeeding now.

Fresh thinking is needed.The two sides should broaden the agenda alongside the well-worn process of UN-hosted talks between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot negotiators.

One idea that should be fully explored is what the terms might be if Greek Cypriots — the majority of the island’s population — were to offer Turkish Cypriots citizens full independence and fully support them to become members of the European Union. 

Such a deal would have to be agreed to by Greek Cypriots, voluntarily and through a referendum. This will be hard. Greek Cypriot public opinion still, in theory, absolutely rejects any partition. But even senior Greek Cypriot officials agree in private — especially around the dinner tables of business leaders seeking a way out of Cyprus’s crushing banking crisis of 2013 — that there is an increasingly urgent need for a new way forward for the economy and for society.

There is also a growing drumbeat of expert opinion urging Greek Cypriots to consider outcomes beyond the traditional federal goal, which has become so discredited that few on Cyprus are paying much attention to the new talks. International Crisis Group has just published Divided Cyprus: Coming to Terms on an Imperfect Reality, while the U .S. Congressional Research Service concluded last year that “a ‘two-state’ solution seems to have become a more prominent part of the Turkish Cypriot/Turkey rhetoric and unless a dramatic breakthrough occurs early in the negotiations… that reality may gain more momentum.”

Polls show that key parts of what Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots really want can look surprisingly similar. The Greek Cypriots have long wanted a solution securely embedded in European values and structures. That is what Turkish Cypriots say they want too: to become part of the European Union, not part of Turkey, even if they do wish that, in extremis, Turkey would protect their small community. The European part is crucial.

This can only happen with voluntary Greek Cypriot agreement, something that will have to be persuasively won by Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots. They will need to offer convincing terms: withdraw all or almost all of Turkey’s 30,000 troops on the island; end the demand to continue the 1960s “guarantorship” so hated by Greek Cypriots; guarantee compensation of Greek Cypriots for the two-thirds of private property in the north that is owned by them; return the ghost resort of Varosha to its original owners; and pull back to hold 29 percent or less of the island. 

After what will necessarily be a multi-year transition, this will also produce the European solution that Greek Cypriots so often say they want. The two sides will share the same basic legal norms and regulations, the same currency, and the same visa regime. Secure and confident in their new sovereign rights, the Turkish Cypriot side will likely waive the un-European demand for “derogations,” or limits on property purchases by Greek Cypriots in the new entity. 

Nobody is completely right on Cyprus: all parties share responsibility for the frozen conflict on the island. At the end of the day, an independent Turkish Cypriot state within the EU is not rewarding one side or another. Europe will doubtless flinch at accepting a small new Turkish, Muslim state in its midst. 

But Europe helped create this situation, since Brussels breaking its own rules contributed to the clumsy 2004 accession of the disunited island to the EU. 

Moreover, at least 100,000 of the 170,000 Turkish Cypriots are already EU citizens through their Republic of Cyprus passports.

Europe will also be among those who gain from resolving a dispute that has for four decades burdened so many local and regional processes, not least the long-hamstrung relationship between the EU and NATO, and the new question of how the countries of the East Mediterranean can most quickly, profitably and safely exploit new offshore natural gas reserves. This is not partition: it is reunifying Cyprus within the EU.

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