On Saturday (7 July), journalists met with Northern Cypriot politicians and intellectuals, in an attempt to grasp the challenges Cyprus faces as holder of the rotating EU Presidency [see our Linksdossier].
The Republic of Cyprus has been an EU member since 2004, and the whole island is officially EU territory. The EU acquis is however suspended for the northern part of the island, occupied by Turkey since 1974 (see background).
The island is divided along ethnic lines, since Greek Cypriots from the north have been forced to move south, and vice versa. In spite of imposing buffer zones with barbed wire and warning signs, crossing the border into the North and ethnic Turkish side is straightforward, as a simple identity card is sufficient.
Living standards in the north appear lower than the south, but not dramatically so. Asked to evaluate their purchasing power, several northern interlocutors put the figure at around 60% of the island's total, where the average salary is around €2000. In Northern Cyprus, the lowest civil servant salary stands at roughly €750. Basic food and housing are cheaper in the north, but imported consumer goods are scarcer and more expensive.
A modern society
Unlike their Turkish counterparts, northern Cypriot women flash a modern Western appearance and eschew the headscarf. Northern Cypriots are proud of their individual national identity, which they describe as more “Cypriot” than “Turkish”.
While people in the Republic of Cyprus refer to the north as “the occupied territories”, northerners call the Cypriot republic “Southern Cyprus”. A few thousand northern Cypriots cross the border to the Republic of Cyprus every day, to work or take their children to English language schools. But their number is decreasing, because they face competition from eastern Europeans, who accept work for lower pay.
Northern Cypriots flock to the south for medical treatment, which they receive for free. In the Republic of Cyprus, medical treatment is free for nationals with an income lower than 1,200 euro per month. Since it is difficult to assess the financial status of Northern Cypriots, all are treated for free.
Many northern Cypriots hold passports from the Republic of Cyprus, allowing them to travel without a visa in the Schengen area. The authorities in the Republic of Cyprus deny issuing passports to Turkish settlers in Northern Cyprus however.
It is rare that Cypriots from the south cross to the north. Apparently, many consider it would be wrong to “spend their money in the occupied territories”.
In spite of its isolation, the north appears to have had success in setting up franchised universities attracting thousands of students from foreign countries. The diplomas issued are reportedly internationally recognised.
English is common language
Cypriots from the two sides of the island speak to each other in English.
The forthcoming privatisation of the northern electricity network, and its anticipated acquisition by a Turkish owner. is a major issue in the north, seen as a sign of Turkey's tightening economic grip. As years pass by, Ankara’s cultural assimilation also appears to grow.
Various northern Cypriots said they were worried that they would remain increasingly forgotten and that their chances of enjoying the benefits of EU membership could be missed.
Teverrüken Uluçay, a member of parliament from the Republican Turkish party, the centre-left force of former moderate northern leader Mehmet Ali Talat, blamed the south for the missed opportunities. He said that the best chance to reach agreement for a reunification as a bi-zonal, bi-communal confederation, was lost in 2010, after Talat and Cypriot President Demetris Chistofias came closest to agreement. Christofias failed to find the courage to take the last steps, he said.
Northern Cypriots generally agree that Turkey is playing the role of big brother, often making decisions for them, but they say the same applies with regard to “Southern Cyprus” and Greece. Northern Cypriots point to the fact that the Republic of Cyprus has the same national anthem as Greece. Nicosia says if reunification talks succeed, the country will have a new anthem.
Status quo no longer viable
However, it is generally accepted in northern Cyprus that the south is comfortable with the status quo. Consequently, the north is not sure how serious the south is about its declared willingness to achieve reunification. The north would like both sides to agree to a deadline to conclude the negotiations, an idea rejected by the Republic of Cyprus.
But with Greece weak and Turkey increasingly assertive, and with tensions growing in the Mediterranean region, the main message of the northern Cypriot community appears to be that the status quo is no longer viable.
Professor Erol Kaymak, of the Eastern Mediterranean University in Famagusta, said the best chance for progress at the reunification talks could come from an improvement of EU-Turkey relations.
Since the election of François Hollande, French-Turkish relations have taken a positive turn, the professor argued, hoping that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, possibly in a new coalition, could also adopt a more positive attitude with respect to Turkey’s EU accession perspective. Each constructive phase in EU-Turkey relations has reflected positively on the Cyprus talks, and vice versa, he argued.
According to Professor Kaymak, as developments in Syria put the international community increasingly to the test, Brussels will come to realise that it cannot afford the luxury of leaving the Cyprus problem unresolved. The role of the EU with respect to the Cyprus problem has been hands-off until now, largely as a result of the control of Athens and Nicosia over the EU’s offices, he argued, adding that this situation could become unsustainable.
The Cypriot EU Presidency is seen by representatives of the north as a chance to signal their problems to the international community. Erhan Erçin, head of the “European Union Coordination Centre”, a government-sponsored body, said that his main aim is to stop northern Cypriots being treated as non-existent EU citizens.
Erçin was present among Nortern Cypriot protesters just ahead of the 28-29 June EU summit, in which some 500 activists from the island’s north voiced their frustration that EU institutions pretend that their problem does not exist.