Cyprus Problem: Running Out of Time?

Kirsty Hughes | 11 June 2018

© 2018 SCER

While, on the EU’s north-west edge, Brexit talks become ever more bitter, at its most south-easterly point, in Cyprus, the mood is low with few hopes for finally resolving the decades long division of the island since Turkish troops invaded in 1974.

At the UN patrolled ‘Green Line’, which divides Nicosia and the north from the south of the island, despite crossing points being open for 15 years, passports have to be shown on both the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot side of the buffer zone to cross. Borders, as the Brexiters are finding in their contorted efforts to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, are not simple matters to change, dismantle or keep open (although the UK-Cyprus talks on resolving the status of the UK bases on Cyprus are perhaps one of the more straightforward parts of the Brexit talks so far).

In Cyprus, few, if any, see hopes for any serious new dynamic to restart peace talks after their failure almost a year ago at the Swiss town of Crans-Montana. Yet many agree that the latest set of talks, which started in 2015 and fell apart in July 2017, came the closest ever to a deal. But some suggest that the very closeness of a deal perhaps exposed the question of whether there was a real political will on all sides to take the final step.

The failure to do a deal down the decades has left the Turkish Cypriots isolated and in limbo given the lack of international recognition (other than from Turkey) of northern Cyprus. The EU took the crunch decision to let the whole of the divided island into the EU in 2004 – represented by the recognised Republic of Cyprus, with the acquis suspended in the north. Turkish Cypriots are EU citizens too but given the north is unrecognised, their universities can’t for instance be part of the Erasmus programme, trade does not flow freely, they can’t vote directly for their own representatives in the European Parliament and even mobile phone networks operate separately in north and south.

The EU threw away much of its leverage in any efforts to resolve the Cyprus problem in letting a divided Cyprus into the EU. And it is the UN that down the years has led on pushing talks forward. The so-called Annan Plan in 2004 set out a framework for a bizonal, bicommunal federation – but this was rejected on the Greek Cypriot side in a subsequent referendum though accepted on the Turkish Cypriot side.

Last year, as talks came to a head, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, put forward a key framework document in Crans-Montana to the two Cypriot leaders – Nicos Anastasiades for the Greek Cypriots, Mustafa Akinci for the Turkish Cypriot side – with representatives of the ‘guarantor’ powers, Greece, Turkey and the UK, all attending. The key issues have been worked over many times down the years – some form of power-sharing and ‘equal treatment’ to reassure the minority Turkish Cypriots, security including removal of troops and of intervention rights (crucial for the Greek Cypriots), territorial adjustment, and property restitution and/or compensation.

When the talks collapsed last year, mutual recriminations and finger-pointing inevitably followed quickly. The Greek Cypriot side argued Turkey was not willing either to let go of its ‘guarantor power’ right to intercede or to reduce its over 35,000 troops to zero (a final end to the occupation). But some suggest that Turkey was, perhaps, ready to make a big step on giving up its guarantor role, and that a route map could have been found on removing troops.

Some ask whether President Anastasiades missed his ‘Northern Ireland’ moment (akin to the historic Good Friday Agreement 20 years ago). Others say Turkey was not serious. There is also a concern that the lack of deep peace-building measures engaging widely across the two communities also mean there is less pressure than there needs to be on political leaders.

Whatever the dynamics of the talks’ collapse, the questions remain fundamental: is there a real will on the Greek Cypriot side and in Turkey to do a deal. Turkish Cypriot politics has its own dynamics too – and observers think Mustafa Akinci is weakened compared to a year ago – but Akinci does not, for now, look like the reluctant one. The UN is due to report in mid-June on possible next steps and, once Turkey’s upcoming elections take place, there may perhaps be a chance for another go. But the UN too is said to be running out of patience with the conflict. In the end, without real willingness to do a deal on all sides, there will be no deal.

The Cyprus problem has now gone on for so long that it is hard to engender a sense of urgency. But some figures on both sides of the divided island – and observers – consider time may finally be running out. In northern Cyprus, Turkey is investing more from infrastructure to tourism and, as in Turkey itself, there is a growing Islamisation with big new mosques built and hundreds of imams sent from Turkey to teach in religious schools. There are growing concerns that younger Turkish Cypriots will continue to leave – often the ones who are most ‘pro-deal’ too.

The goal of a bizonal, bicommunal federation has long been at the centre of peace talks. Yet some now fear – or others prefer – a two state solution could come to the fore; or alternatively might some on the Greek Cypriot side prefer the status quo of an unrecognised north and no deal at all, including no power-sharing? But the status quo may not be stable. Will UN peace-keeping troops stay; will there be more clashes over natural gas drilling off Cyprus between Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus as there was earlier this year; and will northern Cyprus become ever more Turkish and assimilated?

In the face of the EU’s many other challenges – from reforming the eurozone, transatlantic relations, migration, authoritarian governments in the EU and on its borders, Brexit and more – the Cyprus problem does not appear anywhere near the top of the EU’s list. But if some at least in both the UN and EU understand that time is running out, then urgency on all sides is vital now.

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Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.