09 November 1996

Cyprus problem
looks increasingly
for EU solution

World View
Patrick Comerford

THE Irish Ambassador, Mr Liam Rigney, is in Cyprus this weekend for talks in advance of a visit to Cyprus later in the month by Mr Kester Heaslip, the Irish diplomat who is the EU’s special envoy charged with trying to negotiate a settlement to the island's divisions.

The past few months have seen tension heightened, with five people killed on the “Green Line” since June and a respected Turkish Cypriot journalist murdered in the occupied area.

Tensions were activated once again this week when the Turkish Cypriot authorities sealed off the sole crossing point on the divided island to 500 mostly elderly Greek Cypriots known as the “enclaved” and a handful of Maronites 187 in all living in the north. On the other side of the buffer zone, in the face of opposition from the government and from the UN peace keeping forces, a right wing Greek Cypriot deputy, Marios Matsakis, has been protesting at the Ledra Palace crossing point in Nicosia, trying to dissuade tourists from crossing to the north.

The provocative action by Mr Matsakis has continued each day despite personal pleas from the Cypriot Foreign Minister, Mr Alecos Michaelides, and the Justice Minister, Mr Alecos Evangelou, and the Turkish Cypriots are threatening to resume their action on Monday.

The Cypriot government’s anxiety about the recent escalation in tension on the island is understandable under any circumstances. But that anxiety has another agenda too:

Cyprus has been promised that negotiations on its application for full membership of the European Union will open six months after the Inter Governmental Conference ends. That date was promised to Malta too, but the recent Maltese election has seen a Labour government returned to power on the promise of withdrawing Malta's application to join the EU. The Cypriot government is anxious to ensure that no excuses should get away from speeding up the process of negotiations with Cyprus.

Cyprus qualifies for EU membership according to many criteria. According to the Commission opinion on the application for membership, the geographical position of Cyprus and deep lying bonds have for 2,000 years “located the island at the very fount of European culture an civilisation”.

The island has witnessed an economic miracle since Cyprus began to recover from the Turkish invasion of 1974. Annual per capita income now stands at $15,470, higher than some EU member states. With an annual growth rate at 6 per cent over the past seven years, inflation at 2.6 per cent, virtually no unemployment, and a budget deficit at 1.3 per cent of the GDP, Cyprus compares more than favourably with many of its prospective EU partners.

This economic success story is mainly due to tourism. In addition, agricultural output has returned to the pre-invasion levels, although 37 per cent of the island is still Turkish occupied. Shipping too has played a large part in the economic miracle, and the island has the world’s fourth largest registered shipping fleet.

Prof Christopher Pissarides, of the London School of Economics, points out that among Mediterranean countries only France and Italy are richer, and the per capita income equals that in Spain. At a recent conference organised by the LSE and the Hellenic Centre in London, the Minister of Finance, Mr Christos Chrstodolou, pointed out that Cyprus meets the Maastricht criteria for economic and monetary union.

The same economic boom has not been enjoyed in the north. According to Mr Michalis Attalides, the Permanent Delegate of Cyprus to the EU, GDP per capita in the north is three or four times lower, and inflation is running at about 60 per cent. According to Mr Attalides there are no insurmountable obstacles" to membership.

The large off-shore sector, which has come to play an important part in the economy in recent years, may prove a difficult one for Cyprus to abandon as the price for accession, although Mr Christodolou points out that Ireland too benefits from a large offshore sector. However, as Dr Pissarides put it bluntly at the conference, “beggars can't be choosers”.

Security and the continued division of the island remain the major political concerns for EU negotiators. In recent weeks, the Cypriot government has been trying to send out signals that is willing to take account of feelings and anxieties in northern Cyprus as the accession negotiations proceed. Mr Michaelides, who has personally appealed to Mr Matsakis to end his provocative protests, told the conference at the LSE: “You cannot change geography. We have to talk to our neighbours, and try to make friends.”

The European Commission official charged with negotiations with Cyprus, Malta and Turkey, Mr Serge Andre Abou, believes that as the negotiations open it will be important to provide assurances for the Turkish Cypriots that accession will not reinforce their feelings of isolation.

Cypriots fear that by refusing to take part in negotiations on the island, the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey will be able to exercise an effective veto on Cyprus joining the EU, knowing Britain and other states will oppose Cyprus joining without an agreement on a bizonal, bicommunal, federal republic.

Mr Yannos Kranidiotis, the Greek representative at the IGC, is anxious to point out to Turkish Cypriots that through EU membership for the whole island they would gain economically and see an end to their isolation, the Cyprus problem poisons relations between Turkey and Greece, he says, and he hints that with a Turkish contribution to a settlement Athens could facilitate closer relations with the EU that would benefit Ankara.

But he sees a great injustice if Turkish intransigence now prevents Cypriot accession: “Cyprus should not be penalised a second time for Turkish intervention.”

Next Friday, the Turkish Cypriots mark the 13th anniversary of their unilateral declaration of independence, but their breakaway “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” is recognised only by Ankara, and survives only with the presence of 30,000 Turkish mainland forces. Whether this anniversary continues to be marked, or whether northern Cyprus ends its international pariah status may depend not so much on the intensity of protests at the Ledra Palace, but on the intensity of diplomatic efforts by Mr Heaslip and other international negotiators.

This ‘World View’ opinion column was published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Saturday 9 November 1996

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