Leveraging Resolution
Leveraging Resolution
Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus
Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Leveraging Resolution

With the Cyprus question still in apparent gridlock, it is a patch of recent history that has been strangely forgotten: on April 24, 2004, Turkish Cypriots voted overwhelmingly (65 percent) to reunify with the Greek Cypriot majority and to create a new Republic of Cyprus in order to join the EU. This was under the United Nations’ Annan Plan, backed by the EU, the US, Turkey, and even the government of Greece. But against everyone’s expectations, the Greek Cypriots voted even more overwhelmingly (76 percent) against the settlement. 

In principle, the EU should have suspended the accession process until the island was reunited – as the bloc’s own rules about unresolved border problems clearly indicate. But, partly due to Greece’s support for Cyprus, and partly due to the Turkish side’s past intransigence, the EU had already allowed Cyprus to sign a Treaty of Accession a year before. There was no legal way out without stopping the whole ten-country eastern expansion the following week. Instead, the EU offered Turkish Cypriots small compensation for the great blow dealt to them – the right to export tax-free to EU markets. 

Even when Greek Cypriots used their membership to block this “direct trade” gesture, Turkey remained determined to continue its own EU accession process. In part because of Turkey’s positive contribution to the efforts to resolve the Cyprus issue, the EU accepted a starting date for negotiations of October 2005. And yet, Ankara did block the expansion of the Turkish-EU customs union to Greek Cypriots, responding to the way the EU had bowed to Greek Cypriot pressure and withheld direct trade for Turkish Cypriots. By 2009, half of Turkey’s EU negotiating chapters were stuck behind this road block. That situation persists. 

The Alternative Cyprus Dynamic: Trade First 

So, what if – as some hoped at the time – the Nordic states had risen up in 2005 against this injustice to the Turkish Cypriots? Their determined stance might have attracted supporters, including the UK and southern Europeans keen to have more of a voice in an EU dominated by Germany and France. Together they might have managed to force through the direct-trade measure for Turkish Cypriots. 

Such action to preserve the integrity of the EU’s enlargement policy would have looked minor and rear-guard at the time, given the prize already won by Cyprus and Greece. But implementation of direct trade for Turkish Cypriots would have made all the difference: Turkey’s willingness to trade with Greek Cypriots would have increased. And after some nervous hiccups, trade, air traffic, and trust would have begun to expand between Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus. 

Low-cost package-tour hotels on Cyprus, long out of fashion for most Europeans, could well have attracted a new generation of Turkish tourists (just as the Aegean Sea islands have been wowing upmarket Turkish visitors since Turkey-Greece normalization in 1999). Greek Cypriots would have quickly oriented themselves to Istanbul, not least thanks to poles of attraction like the ecumenical Greek Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople. (This, by the way, is not pure science fiction: the signs are actually there today in real-world Cyprus. Despite bitter official condemnation of the “illegal” Turkish Cypriot airport, each week thousands of Greek Cypriots use both it and Turkish air carriers to travel more cheaply through Istanbul to the world. A handful of Greek-Cypriot pilots even work for Turkish Airlines.) 

Trade would also have boomed as Greek Cypriots took advantage of low supermarket prices, thanks to imports from Turkey. The large Cyprus-registered tanker fleet would have taken its share of activity at the Turkish oil pipeline terminal at Ceyhan. At the same time, the Greek Cypriot section of Nicosia would have experienced a rapid inflow of representative offices of international companies doing business in the Turkish market and elsewhere in the region. They would have been attracted to Cyprus’s low-tax, low-cost business base with a wide pool of well-educated Turkish and English speakers and quick local air connections. 

Politics Follows 

Politically, the change of atmosphere after five years would have been remarkable. As trust on the part of Greek Cypriots rose, their media would have entertained the idea of a compromise settlement. Greek Cypriot and Turkish officials would have stopped scoring points against each other – no longer setting out unilateral, maximalist dreams or frittering away the years in UN talks of full federation that polls show neither side really wants – and begun talking about what they were actually ready to accept. 

Indeed it would not have been surprising if all sides had finally shown a little flexibility, entering into talks without already having committed to a particular outcome. After all, the negotiators have long known that any settlement will look pretty much like today’s status quo, coming somewhere between a light federation and a two-state solution. 

At the very least, Greek Cypriots, no longer so fearful of Turkey, might make a key concession. They would have accepted more easily that if the two sides really were to try a federal arrangement, the Turkish Cypriots could have the right to a “prenuptial agreement.” Such an arrangement, specifying that the Turkish Cypriots would have sovereign rights if the federal system broke down, would give the Turkish Cypriots a safety net, allaying their fears of being trapped in an abusive relationship or any new federation breaking down in bloodshed (as it did in the 1960s). Greek Cypriots today fear a “prenup” would see them sleepwalk to a separate state. But Turkish Cypriots more or less have that state already, de facto, and a Greek Cypriot concession on such an agreement would encourage them to negotiate more sincerely on a federal package. 

Once able to communicate openly with and gain some trust from the Greek Cypriot side, Turkish leaders might well point out that if Nicosia would go a step further and agree to a two-state settlement, Ankara would withdraw all troops and drop its demand for guaranteed oversight of the Greek Cypriot zone. They might perhaps even offer to give up more territory than that gained by the traditional offer to shrink the Turkish Cypriot zone from 37 percent to 29 percent of the island. They would likely also accept that the natural gas-rich territorial waters off the southern part of the island would be placed fully under Greek Cypriot ownership, a gesture that would constitute valuable compensation for Greek Cypriots’ sense of grievance about losing the north of the island. 

The Turkish Cypriots’ own condition for this two-state settlement would likely have been a guarantee that the 300,000 people now living legally in the Turkish Cypriot zone would – whatever their origin –have the right to citizenship in an independent state, and that this new state would have the right to start negotiating for European Union membership. In this case, Turkish Cypriots might have fewer reservations about Greek Cypriots’ right to buy new property in the north than would be the case under a federal arrangement. A two-state settlement would also mark a clean break with the past, allowing for clear rules about compensation for lost property (Greek Cypriots have title to three-quarters of the land in the north and Turkish Cypriots have title to a tenth of the land in the south). 

Under the EU umbrella, this greater sense of confidence would have allowed for a more imaginative future for the ghost resort of Varosha, which would likely be handed back to the Greek Cypriot side in any version of a settlement. A public company – much like Lebanon’s Solidere, which rebuilt the war-wrecked heart of Beirut – could propose to take over the whole area, demolishing the many unusable structures and rebuilding the beach resort to take its place once again as Cyprus’s premier tourist destination. Existing owners would be issued shares in the overall enterprise, as would those who financed the rebuilding. Turkish international contracting companies would be natural bidders to do much of the work. 

With a better atmosphere on the island of Cyprus, the group of smaller EU states that saved the day in 2005 might also have been able to take a lead in ensuring that the EU-Turkey relationship stayed on course, staging interventions in both Ankara and Brussels to build communication and trust. Even more importantly, it could have created a sense of common purpose to block the trend of suborning EU policies like enlargement to narrow national interests. Choosing their battles carefully, the group might have been able to mobilize a critical mass of member states on issues of common moral interest, especially when crises threatened stability in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed some might have come to believe that this 2005 Cyprus moment marked the point where the EU at last learned to fill the supranational role that its founding fathers had hoped and planned for.

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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