Things are looking up
Things are looking up
Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus
Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Things are looking up

The development of a conflict: from political lows through compromise to today's negotiations. Never were hopes for a reunification of the island as high as they are now. Will Cyprus soon be a single international entity with constituent states of equal status?

This month's start of full-fledged talks on Cyprus are the best chance yet to reunite the Mediterranean island. Yet Europe has been slow to seize the opportunity, not realizing how much hopes for a settlement have risen -- or seeing the EU's vital interest in a positive result.

Some cynicism is not surprising. Many initiatives have failed to stop the deepening divisions of Cyprus since independence from Britain in 1960. Low points were the Greek Cypriot actions that helped drive the Turkish Cypriot community, which makes up 20 per cent of the population, out of government and into ethnic ghettoes in 1963-64; the coup engineered on Cyprus by the junta in Athens to seize the island for Greece in 1974; and the Turkish invasion that year, which reversed the coup and ended in the occupation of 37 per cent of the island.

Time for compromise

But there is now real hope of a fresh start, and much of it has to do with Europe. It was the promise of EU membership that persuaded Turkey to switch to its pro-settlement, "one step ahead" policy in 2004. The Turkish Cypriots elected a pro-compromise leader, Mehmet Ali Talat, and wholeheartedly supported the UN's Annan Plan of that year. Talat and Turkey have stuck to this position, despite bitterness at the Greek Cypriots' overwhelming rejection of the EU-backed UN plan, and disappointment at the EU's careless acceptance of a divided island into the union. 
Now the Greek Cypriots have changed too, made confident by EU membership and also fearing that hard-line policies were pushing the island towards partition. In a presidential election in February, two-thirds of the Greek electorate voted for candidates who advocated a compromise solution. Since then the winner of the election, Demetris Christofias, has prepared Greek Cypriots for compromise and challenged anti-Turkish Cypriot taboos.

Constituent states of equal status

The result has been remarkable progress. On 21 March, Christofias and Talat, who share left-wing politics and a long friendship, formed 13 preparatory working groups and technical committees. On 3 April, they opened a new crossing between the front lines in the heart of the capital, Nicosia. In a joint statement outlining an agreed goal for the negotiations on 23 May, the Greek Cypriot side won a commitment to a "Federal Government" with a "single international personality." The Turkish Cypriot side won commitment to two Constituent States, "of equal status." On 3 September, the two sides began open-ended, full-fledged talks.

Good economic prospects

The external omens are good, with no elections in the region for more than a year. In Turkey, the ruling party of religious-minded conservatives and key factions in the secular-military establishment still support their 2004 compromise offer to withdraw almost all of the 30,000 Turkish troops. Over the past decade Greece has shown Greek Cypriots one way ahead with their own profitable move from confrontation with Turkey to normalization. Indeed, studies show that increased trade, tourism and investment from a settlement will add a minimum ten percentage points of income for all Cypriots within seven years.

Clever diplomacy called for

The United Nations has developed a sophisticated mediating role. Unlike in the 1999-2004 period, when a strong UN lead that forged compromises alienated the Greek Cypriots, the UN is mostly acting as a facilitator this time. Nevertheless, the outline of a likely solution worked out in the decades-old UN body of work has been known for many years. The problem has always been for the leaderships to persuade public opinion to accept the painful compromises. They are now trying to do this.
The negotiations will still be tough. Clever diplomacy will be needed to frame the transition of the existing two Cypriot administrations - one internationally recognized and one not - into a new federation with equality. Turkey, Cyprus and the EU will all need to be satisfied on the question of security guarantees. Compensation for large tracts of Greek Cypriot property in the new Turkish Cypriot constituent state will be expensive and difficult to organize.

Failure would mean new friction

The EU, which has most to gain from a settlement, can do much to help. It must prepare major financial support, as the EU did for Northern Ireland, or Germany did for its own reunification. The EU, however, is limited by the fact that Greek Cypriots are already full members. Individual EU states would be unwise to watch from the sidelines, or hide behind Greek Cypriot objections just to slow down Turkey's progress on EU membership negotiations. If these Cyprus talks fail, all in Europe will pay a price in renewed tensions between the EU and NATO, years of friction between the EU and Turkey, a deepening of the Christian-Muslim divide and possible new military tensions on the EU's southeastern edge.

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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