The Cyprus Problem: a European solution

by George Hatjoullis

I have avoided this subject even though it is always at the forefront of my mind. In principle, I could simply ignore it. I am a British Citizen and have never been anything else. Both my parents were also British Citizens and were never anything else. I arrived here a few months old and before the ‘troubles’ began. My father and some older siblings were already here. My father arrived in 1947, straight out of the British army. My sons are both UK born. Why you might ask do I care so much? My wife was  citizen of the Republic of Cyprus before naturalisation and all her family reside in Cyprus. I could claim this is the link but that would be dishonest. It would be more honest to admit that our meeting and marriage was the result of an inability to shake the Cyprus Problem from my mind. Marriage may have reinforced the link, but it did not create it.

So what is the Cyprus Problem? In a sense the problem is that no one knows. Different people define it in different ways. It will never be solved until those trying to solve it have a common view of the problem. A common view is a necessary condition for solution, but is not sufficient. Understanding why a common view is not being established is a good place to start.

The failure to establish a common view lies in identity. The Island is peopled by a Greek speaking majority and Turkish speaking minority. Migration has modified this somewhat but it remains broadly true. Moreover, the main protagonists are these two communities. The two communities are also differentiated by religion. The Greek speaking community are Greek Orthodox christians and the Turkish speaking community are Sunni muslims. Not all members of each community are spiritually committed to these religions but the religions are so embedded in the respective cultures as to make no difference. Under British rule the Island was united by English, which was widely used in official matters. English is still widely spoken and used but it is no longer a common factor for the two communities. Differences of religion and language are not necessarily obstacles to a solution. Look at, say, Switzerland. Three languages and two religions but a unified state nevertheless. Language and religion are not the problem.

The Swiss example is instructive. During my time working for Swiss investment banks I had occasion to visit Switzerland many times. I was struck by the diversity and multilingualism. Yet all the locals that I met were staunchly Swiss. They never identified themselves (to me) as Swiss-German or Swiss-French or Swiss-Italian, but just Swiss. Swiss is the dominant social identity in Switzerland. This is not the case in Cyprus. The Greek-speaking, Greek Orthodox christians identify with Greece and the Turkish-speaking, Sunni muslims identify with Turkey. The island is peopled primarily by Greeks and Turks. Cypriots are hard to find. This is symbolised by the prominence of the Greek and Turkish flags (as I have noted in an earlier blog) and the distinct absence of the flag of the RoC even in areas ostensibly under RoC control. In my personal experience, just making these observations is apt to elicit the charge of treachery. The greatest statement of loyalty and patriotism in both communities is to Greece and Turkey .

If the island is peopled by Greeks and Turks that are loyal to Greece and Turkey then the RoC is an anomaly that serves no purpose. The island may as well move to double partition and union with the respective motherlands. The RoC can then be absorbed into the Hellenic Republic. Of course, this does not reunify the island but it is a solution of sorts. It is probably not a very satisfactory solution for either side and may lead to renewed instability and conflict in the future. I suspect many Turkish-Cypriots would object to double partition but many Greek-Cypriots would welcome this outcome. The troubles were not a struggle for independence from Great Britain as such but for union with Greece. The yearning for union remains in the hearts, if not the minds, of many Greek-Cypriots. They may not realise that every time they assert they are Greeks, the logic of the assertion is for union. The Turkish-Cypriots may be less keen on union with Turkey but still fear this sublimated yearning for union within the Greek-Cypriots. This a strong statement from someone who does not know any Turkish-Cypriots and never has known any. On what basis can such an assertion be made? The answer the EU.

Turkish entry into the EU is, shall we say, problematic. This is especially so under Erdogan’s rule. However, even before Erdogan, the role of the army in Turkish politics was problematic. If the Turkish-occupied north accepts union with Turkey it basically excludes itself from EU membership for some time and maybe forever. The ideal solution for the Turkish-Cypriots might involve a bizonal federation ,with local autonomy, but with simultaneous EU membership. Brussels would then effectively provide the federal governance necessary. Moreover, ultimately, free movement and ownership would need to be allowed as this is a legal requirement of the single market. There could be a transition period but permanent restrictions would be impossible. There would need to be some exchange of land and some compensation, funded by the EU. The Turkish-Cypriots would gain EU membership and the protections this involves. The Greek-Cypriot community would see Turkish troops leave the island and the influence of Turkey diminish. The Greek-Cypriots would need to accept local Turkish-Cypriot autonomy in part of the island but this would be within the boundaries set by EU membership and substantially similar to the legal infrastructure of the Greek-Cypriot state. They would both be EU member states.

A bi-zonal federation with simultaneous EU membership for the Turkish occupied north might also solve the identity problem. Both communities would retain local identities of Greek and Turkish but gain the overarching identity of EU citizens. Greek-Cypriots would not be ruled from Athens but both would be ruled, in a literal sense, from Brussels. The laws and rules of both countries would be derived from Brussels. This is a kind of union with Greece. Moreover, it is one that Turkish-Cypriots would be able to accept. The fear of being overwhelmed by the Greek majority is negated by a degree of autonomy and the overarching supervision of Brussels. It is a uniquely European solution.