Cyprus Ambassador: EU-Turkey dialogue key to Cyprus reunification

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Turkey has a huge role to play in ensuring that the historic talks, launched earlier this month to reunite the divided island, are a success, Nicholas Emiliou, Cyprus’s chief diplomat to the EU, told EURACTIV.

Now ending his term in Brussels, the Ambassador has already been appointed Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cyprus. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here. 

It seems that the Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat Talat is showing more goodwill towards reaching a compromise on the reunification of Cyprus since he is in direct talks with the new President of Cyprus Demetris Christofias. What has changed since his election? 

President Christofias uses all possible means to find a solution. Since he was elected (in February 2008) he has already met four times with Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat. 

During the first meeting it was agreed to establish working groups on some of key aspects of the Cyprus problem. Following their fourth meeting last Friday, it was agreed to launch direct talks.

Most certainly there is a willingness on the part of both leaders to go forward with a solution. The working groups have worked for almost three months, on some issues we have seen a convergence of positions but on other key issues there are still differences, which will be discussed by the two leaders. 

What is the role of Turkey in these negotiations? 

Of course one of the key factors that might in the end decide the outcome of the whole process is Ankara and the situation in Turkey. 

As you know, we have a power struggle between the government, which is composed by moderate islamists and so-called deep state, composed of the Kemalist elites. The outcome of that struggle will to a large extent decide the success or failure of the negotiations on the Cyprus problem. 

Turkey exerts an effective control in the occupied area of northern Cyprus. First of all there is the presence of the Turkish army there, 43,000 Turkish troops in a small area around three and a half square kilometers. Then there is the presence of settlers from Turkey. Two out of three inhabitants in the occupied north of Cyprus are unfortunately not indigineous Turkish Cypriots but people who were brought over from Turkey and settled in Cyprus. 

Thirdly, economically, Turkey provides hundreds of millions of dollars every year to support the regime in the north. So the dependence of the Turkish Cypriot leadership on Turkey is multifaceted. 

So there are issues which depend more from Ankara? 

There are two important issues and elements of solutions. 

Firstly, security and the system of guarantees. The key aspect of security is the withdrawal of Turkish forces, which only Ankara can decide and not Talat. And on the system of guarantees, it is our belief that a modern European state like Cyprus, which is a member state of the European Union, does not need external guarantors. The situation now is different from 1960, and only Ankara can decide whether it will want to give up its guarantor rights in Cyprus which were established under the 1960 treaties. 

A second aspect which is important for the Greek Cypriots is the territorial adjustment. The return of land that was occupied by the Turkish army in 1974, so that a significant number of refugees could return to their ancestral homes under Greek Cypriot administration. This is another key element where only Ankara can decide whether it will return some land or not, because that land is occupied by the Turkish army. 

On the basis of these elements, the role of the Turkish government of Ankara in finding a solution will be a key one. 

Does Cyprus want the EU to use the argument that if Turkey is not cooperative with Cyprus, Ankara will pay the price – meaning there will be no further accession negotiations? Does Cyprus want the EU to present this argument to Turkey? 

The progress of solving the Cyprus problem is one of the decisive elements in determining the progress of Turkish accession negotiations. That was obvious in the European Council conclusions of last December 2007, when Turkey was invited to contribute positively to find a solution to the Cyprus problem. 

Also, the Turkish contribution to finding a solution to the Cyprus problem is a key part of the political dialogue between the EU and Turkey. This also is recorded in the pre-accession partnership between Turkey and the European Union and also in the EU common position in their latest association council with Turkey. 

A positive Turkish contribution towards finding an acceptable solution in Cyprus is an element of evaluation of Turkey’s progress towards joining the EU. But it is only one element because of course the accession negotiations cover far wider fields than the Cyprus problem. 

So it cannot be a guarantee that if the Cyprus problem is solved, Turkey will accede to the EU automatically because there are other criteria to satisfy such as the Copenhagen criteria, democracy, functioning market economy, adaptation to the acquis. Having said this, solving the Cyprus problem will remove a major obstacle that is blocking Turkey’s way towards the EU.

There are at least eight important negotiating chapters that are officially blocked and which cannot be opened or closed and no negotiating chapter can be closed, as a result of Turkey’s refusal to implement the Customs Union protocol vis-à-vis Cyprus. If we find a solution to the Cyprus problem, all these obstacles will be removed. 

When we look at the positive dispositions of both Greek and Turkish leaders to relaunch talks, which had been frozen for four years, on 3 September, what are the chances of coming to a positive conclusion? 

I’m cautiously optimistic, in the sense that I do not want to give the impression that the solution is imminent, like tomorrow or next month, but the climate is good and there is an agreement on what the final solution should look like. 

There is also an agreement that the solution will be found and agreed among the Cypriots, not through outsides interventions as it was the case with the Annan plan, on which there was no agreement. That was decided through arbitration and put to the Cypriots. 

There are difficulties that should not be underestimated. What the end result will be, we will know in a few months when we start discussing the most difficult issues and see whether there is an equivalent will to move forwards from the other side, especially from Ankara. 

Do you think it is realistic that this issue will be resolved within months rather than years, as Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat said? 

As far as the Greek Cypriot side is concerned, to use an expression used by the former President George Vassiliou, “we want a solution yesterday”, because it is the Greek Cypriot community that is suffering the most from the non-solution. 

You should not forget that 36 % of Cyprus’ territory is occupied by Turkey, a third of the Greek Cypriot population are refugees on their own land and also we have the transfer of settlers from Turkey. 

Whether we find a solution within weeks or months very much depends on the willingness of the Turkish side to accept a reasonable compromise. We will exhaust all possibilities but, on the other hand, there are key issues that we cannot compromise. 

On which basis can the current deadlock be unblocked? Some issues such as the Turkish military presence in north Cyprus, the return of properties and the rights of Turkish settlers loom as potential obstacles. On the Greek Cypriot side, what would be the main points that must be reached to come to an agreement? 

I have already mentioned the issues of territory, the return of refugees, security and the question of guarantees. 

Another issue is the continuity of the state. The solution which should be found, should lead not to the creation of a new state but should be the transformation of the existing Republic of Cyprus, from a unitary to a federal, bizonal, bicommunal state. This is of vital importance to us. 

Another issue is the functionality of the state. We should find arrangements that will make the functioning of the state as smooth as possible, that will not lead to a blockage of the state affairs because of disagreements between the two communities. 

We have bitter historical experience on that. The breakdown of the bicommunal Republic of Cyprus in 1963, which was a turning point in modern Cypriot history was the result of non workable agreements which blocked the functioning of the state. 

Another issue is that of the settlers, there are many of them, so we should find a way to encourage the return of a number of them back home to Turkey. These are key issues that are on the minds of most Cypriots. 

Considering the failure of the referendum in 2004, when a peace plan initiated by the United Nations was rejected by Greek Cypriots, is it now feasible to hold another referendum? 

What happened in 2004 was the rejection of the Annan Plan, which was the result of arbitration, not the result of an agreement between the two communities. 

Whereas now the ambition of president Christofias and apparently of Mr. Talat is to find a Cypriot solution, which will be agreed before being put to referenda. 

So if we have an agreement between the two leaders, which they can recommend to their respective communities, it’s not impossible for the Greek Cypriots to vote yes this time.

A latest poll which was published in Cyprus last Sunday showed that 75% of Greek Cypriots are in favour of the decision of President Christofias to go to direct negotiations with the Turkish Cypriot leaders, which I think is a strong indication that people want a solution. 

What kind of proposals would diplomats and politicians have to come up with to reach a compromise? How different would it be from the previous UN proposals? 

Now we know the problems, we know where the differences are. 

Rather than wait for proposals from third parties to solve this issue, there should be discussion among the Cypriot communities to find and agree on the solutions. 

There is substantial acquis on various aspects of the Cyprus problem, so it’s a matter of discussion between the leaders of the two communities. And the leaders should be left to exhaust all of the possibilities to find a solution among themselves. 

If that’s not possible then we will see what UN secretary general, who is charged by the Security Council, has to propose. 

Do you think that the intervention of the UN to resolve this issue is indispensable? 

The talks between the two leaders and the whole procedure will be under the auspices of the UN with the UN acting as a facilitator, not a mediator. 

After 34 years of division, both sides of Cyprus have evolved in different ways, under different influences. Can the economic and psychological gaps between both sides be bridged? In which way would it benefit both Greek and Turkish Cypriot to reunify? Will a reunification lead to a stronger Cyprus? 

Cyprus is wounded by the division caused by the Turkish army 34 years ago. Therefore reunifying Cyprus would lead to a stronger Cyprus socially, politically and economically. 

I don’t think that Greek and Turkish Cypriots cannot live together. There is a good “rapport” between the two communities. 

The previous Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktasch supported the view that if Greek and Turkish Cypriots came together, there would be a blood bath. When the crossing points on the green line opened in 2003, no such thing happened. Since then there have been 15 million or even more crossings and there was no single serious incident. Everyday thousands of Turkish Cypriots cross the dividing line. Even in daily life, people do their shopping in both communities. There is a common Cypriot culture, therefore it will be possible – especially for the younger generations, which did not experience the difficult periods of the late 50’s and 60’s when we had serious conflicts between the two communities – to build a common life in a common Cyprus. 

Also, the dynamic that the solution will create in the economy will make the bridging of that gap in the economy between the two communities even easier than today. 

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