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Nathalie Tocci is the Director of Italy’s Istituto Affari Internazionali and Special Advisor to EU High Representative Federica Mogherini
I thought this time would have been different. I was sure that for the first time since 1963 there was an unprecedented alignment of the stars that would have allowed a reunification in Cyprus. At no other time were the leaders of the two communities – Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci – so committed to peace at the same time.
I was wrong.
On 7 July, when United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres walked into his press conference in Crans Montana and declared with a low voice that the week-long talks between Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots, the three guarantor powers – Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom – and European Union observers had ended in failure, I asked myself the uncomfortable question: have we reached the end of the federal road in Cyprus?
I fear the answer is yes.
The conflict in Cyprus is amongst the oldest of the post-colonial age, and the only one within the EU. The delicate constitutional compromise reached in 1960 that enshrined political equality between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, and foresaw security guarantees and military presence (with a strong colonial taste) by Greece, Turkey and the UK, lasted a mere three years. By 1963 the Greek Cypriot numerical majority violated the ‘consociational’ articles of the constitution, giving rise to a season of bloody intercommunal violence. In 1974, following a Greek military coup on the island, Turkey intervened militarily, occupying 37% of the island’s north. That occupation lasts to this day. Since the late 1970s each UN Secretary-General has invested in peace in Cyprus. Endless special envoys hoped and believed they could usher in a federal deal on the island. Each one of them left Cyprus disappointed and disillusioned after having invested so much time and energy into an agreement they genuinely thought was within reach. UN envoy Espen Barthe Eide is the latest of these victims.
What is missing is the political will to walk the extra mile and make the necessary step into the unknown
But the Cyprus conflict appears to be so eminently solvable. Since 1974, with the exception of sporadic incidents, there is no violence on the island. Since 2003 the green line separating north from south has been open. Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots can freely cross the unrecognised border, visiting, shopping and, in the case of many Turkish Cypriots who have obtained citizenship in the Republic, work in the south and in the rest of the Union. It would be too much to say that there is no animosity between the communities. But compared to the other conflicts just a few miles from the island’s shores, from the Balkans to Libya, from the Caucasus to Syria, from Yemen to Palestine, Cyprus is an island of tranquility. The regional dimension of the conflict – relations between Turkey and Greece – while not tension-free, are characterised as much by geostrategic rivalry as by political and economic cooperation, at least since the earthquake diplomacy in 1999 opened the way to a historic rapprochement between the two countries. Since then, Greece has been one of the most steadfast supporters of Turkey’s European integration.
So what explains this litany of failures in Cyprus? Why does the Cyprus conflict, whose federal solution would seem to be so within reach, persist to this day? Paradoxically, or perhaps not, it is the relative calm on the island and satisfaction with the status quo that makes a solution so elusive. Any peace agreement inevitably requires painful compromises for each party to the conflict. A federal solution in Cyprus would require the Greek Cypriots to cede power and co-govern the island with their Turkish Cypriot compatriots, recognising their political equality notwithstanding the latter’s numerical minority on the island. The Turkish Cypriots would be called upon to renounce part of the territory currently controlled by them in the north and give back some of the Greek Cypriot properties in their federated state. Turkey – as well as Greece and the UK – would have to revise its role as security guarantor and significantly scale back its military presence on the island.
The broad outlines of a deal have been known at least since the early 1990s, if not as far back as the late 1970s. Since 2004 the rough details of a possible agreement are also known, having been outlined by the Annan Plan, which was approved by the Turkish Cypriot community but overwhelmingly rejected by the Greek Cypriots in separate referendums that year. The current round of negotiations kicked off after Akinci’s election as Turkish Cypriot leader in 2014 and ended in the Crans Montana failure. These talks revolved around a revision and fine-tuning of those details. In other words, the deal, in broad and fine details, is basically known.
What is missing is the political will to walk the extra mile and make the necessary step into the unknown, a step in the dark that is intrinsic to any successful peace process. When the status quo is tolerable, if not satisfactory, to at least one party to the conflict, making that step – however small it may seem to outside observers – becomes difficult or even impossible, hollowing out the political preconditions for successful mediation. This is what happened in 2004 when the Greek Cypriot community turned down the Annan Plan only to enter the EU one week later.
Three of the four parties are insufficiently unhappy to make the painful and risky compromises an agreement would warrant
In 2017 the responsibility for the failure is not so clear-cut. Whereas the Turkish Cypriots – who live in an unrecognised state with all the downsides that implies – have a clear interest in reaching a federal compromise. Greek Cypriots, Turks and Greeks are far more lukewarm.
Turkey, under its President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is not ideologically opposed to a federal solution. Unlike its old school Kemalist predecessors, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) accepted the Annan Plan in 2004 and appeared to be open to a deal in 2017. But today Erdoğan’s first (and second and third) priority appears to be the consolidation of his domestic power. And to the extent that this rests on wooing nationalist voters, his incentive to go the extra mile in Cyprus is diluted.
Greece is in principle well disposed towards a deal. But partly by coincidence, partly by design, Greece – and in particular Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, who belongs to the nationalist right Independent Greeks party – did not play a particularly helpful role, notably in the previous effort to reach an agreement back in January this year.
Finally, the Greek Cypriots, nearing the finishing line of the negotiation, raised the bar too high concerning the withdrawal of Turkey’s military rights and presence in Cyprus, leading to a collapse of the talks.
Fifty-five years have passed since the outbreak of conflict on Aphrodite’s island. The content of a federal compromise is known by all. But the truth is that three of the four parties to the conflict are relatively content with the status quo, or at least insufficiently unhappy with it to make the painful and risky compromises an agreement would warrant. The uncomfortable truth is that for too many the status quo is preferable to a peace agreement. Alas, those who end up with the short straw – as always – are the weaker party to the conflict: the Turkish Cypriot community that is being progressively absorbed against its will into Turkey itself.
This article was first published in Europe’s World print issue number 35. Read more on the issue and order your copy here.
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