The new round of talks that began on 11 February in Cyprus has been accompanied by the traditional burst of optimism and news that key parties are eager to reach a settlement. But what kind of deal can they really reach ? The official goal – a bizonal, bicommunal federation – has stymied negotiators for decades. The time has come to at least consider other options, including 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 re-unification was a decade ago under the 2004 Annan Plan, named after UN 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, the UN-collated “convergences” widely leaked from the 2008-2012 talks show that any federal deal will have to look pretty much like the one hammered out in those years of intense negotiations.
Federal solution rejected
Yet in 2004, the reality of public sentiment bit back. Seventy-six per cent of Greek Cypriots, who make up nearly four-fifths of the island’s population, 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 infrastructures, economies, languages 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 per cent 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 are desperate for a settlement – and polls still show that there is still support for a bizonal, bicommunal federaton as a second-best solution on both sides. But when it gets to the details, any federal deal will have tough time getting through the necessary referendum. Just on the Greek Cypriot side, according to a SeeD/Cyprus 2015 poll, few support political equality (32 per cent), a federal government (31 per cent), bizonality (19 per cent), bicommunality (18 per cent), and equal constituent states (15 per cent)
Fresh thinking is needed. As International Crisis Group suggested in its March 14 report, “Divided Cyprus: Coming to Terms on an Imperfect Reality”, the two sides should broaden the agenda to explore 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 can only happen if voluntarily agreed to by Greek Cypriots. This will be hard. Greek Cypriot public opinion still, in theory, absolutely rejects any partition. But 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. 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. For them, the European connection is crucial.
If Greek Cypriots support the idea of consensual separation, nobody else in the EU can really object, since the whole island is already theoretically in the union and most Turkish Cypriots already have EU passports. But Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots will have their work cut out to persuade the Greek Cypriots. The Turkish sides cannot campaign for, or ask directly for, an independent Turkish Cypriot state, since the UN Security Council ruled out such an idea after a premature unilateral declaration of independence in 1983. Instead they will have to adopt a new strategy of cooperative rhetoric, and explore the idea in an informal, parallel track alongside the well-worn process of UN-hosted talks.
A need for convincing terms
The Turkish sides will also need to offer convincing terms: withdraw all or almost all of Turkey’s 30,000 Turkish troops; end the demand to continue the 1960s “guarantorship” hated by Greek Cypriots1; guarantee proper 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 Greek Cypriot owners; agree that the natural gas deposits off the Greek Cypriot part of the coast will belong fully to Greek Cypriots; and pull their front lines back to hold 29 per cent or less of the island, down from the 37 per cent that currently controlled by the Turkish sides.
This could well produce the European solution that Greek Cypriots so often say they want, after what will necessarily be a multi-year transition, the removal of Turkish troops and the entry of a Turkish Cypriot state into the EU. 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 breaking its own rules contributed to the clumsy 2004 accession of the un-reunited 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 does not have to be seen as partition: it is reunifying Cyprus within the EU.
1The Treaty of Guarantee is a treaty between the Republic of Cyprus, Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland promulgated in 1960. Article I bans Cyprus from participating in any political union or economic union with any other state. Article II requires the other parties to guarantee the independence, territorial integrity and security of Cyprus. Article IV authorizes the use of force to maintain the current state of affairs in Cyprus. The treaty was used as the basis of Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, in particular article IV of the treaty. This article entitled these three guarantor parties to multi-lateral action among them or as a last resort if no concerted action seemed possible, each guarantor is entitled to unilateral action.