Tuesday 17 January 2017

Will Cyprus be reunified?


Tthe formal split of Cyprus dates to Turkey’s invasion of the island in 1974, which followed a Greece-inspired coup aimed at enosis (union with Greece). Since then Cyprus has been divided between the Greek-Cypriot republic in the south, a full member of the UN and the European Union; and the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey. Periodic attempts to reunify Cyprus have floundered, most recently in 2004 when the so-called Annan plan was backed by Turkish-Cypriot voters but rejected by three-quarters of the Greek-Cypriot majority. But since 2015 the leaders of the two communities have stepped up efforts to produce a fresh agreement they can sell to their voters. UN-brokered talks in Geneva broke up last week without a deal, but hopes remain high that the two sides will resolve their outstanding disagreements in time to hold dual referendums in the summer. Will Cyprus be reunified?

The constitutional model for a reunified state is a “bi-zonal, bi-communal federation”, based on deep decentralisation to the two communities and power-sharing arrangements at the centre. The recent talks have covered several contentious elements, including governance arrangements, territorial adjustments and compensation for Greek Cypriots who fled the north in 1974. There are also thorny economic issues to settle. But the trickiest matter is security. Under the republic’s 1960 constitution, Britain, Greece and Turkey have the right to military intervention in Cyprus should its integrity be threatened (this was the pretext for the Turkish invasion). The Greek Cypriots want to scrap these provisions, arguing that security is guaranteed by EU membership (Cyprus joined in 2004, although the EU’s writ extends only to the south). But the Turkish-Cypriot minority, harbouring bitter memories of intercommunal fighting that racked the island in the 1960s and ’70s, is wary of giving up protection from Turkish troops, some 30,000-40,000 of whom are stationed in the north. The three guarantor powers, which have been involved in the latest round of talks, must approve any security arrangements. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s mercurial president, may be a stumbling block. He needs the support of Turkish nationalists in parliament for a set of proposed domestic constitutional changes, and they may balk at concessions on Cyprus.

Veteran Cyprus-watchers, who have often seen their hopes dashed, are cautious. Even if a compromise can be found on security, perhaps involving a “sunset clause” for Turkish troops, the biggest hurdle lies ahead: a majority of voters in both communities on the island must back any deal. Mindful of the failure of the Annan plan, which was largely imposed on Cyprus from without, Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci, the respective leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, have driven the process themselves. They will not sign any agreement they believe voters will reject. This is perhaps the best reason for optimism. But time is tight: Mr Anastasiades faces re-election in just over a year. And European governments have lately found it difficult to win referendums, as the prime ministers (and ex-prime ministers) of Denmark, the Netherlands, Britain and Italy can attest.

The first beneficiaries of reunification would be Cypriots themselves. But the gains would spread beyond the island. A deal would ease the troubled EU-Turkey relationship, open up energy potential in Cypriot waters, and—because Turkey would recognise the reunified state—ease co-operation between the EU and NATO. It would also be a welcome piece of good news for an EU buffeted by endless crises. But warnings that this may be the last chance for reunification are not idle: it is older Cypriots, who can directly recall the violence and rancour of the past, who are keenest on a deal. And there are fewer and fewer of them left.

*** The Economist



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