The peculiarities of Cyprus, the third Mediterranean island involved in the expansion of Europe, come from its political and religious history. Situated 70km to the south of Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean and about 400km from the Greek island Rodi, Cyprus was ruled by foreigners until 1960.
From Venus to Makarios
The Ottoman Turks grasped the strategic importance of Cyprus, traditionally the birthplace of Venus, and governed the island until 1878, when political sovereignty passed to Great Britain. London’s hegemony lasted until 1959. The situation remained stable until 1967 when the Greek Colonels came to power. The military dictatorship never denied the nationalist aims it had with regard to Cyprus and henceforth the island witnessed battles and disputes between the Turkish and Greek communities.
Things changed in 1974 when an attempted coup d’etat in Niscosia, the island’s capital, by the Greek regime, aiming to overthrow the government of Makarios, failed. Turkey quickly mobilised its own army and within three days had managed to seize about a third of the island’s territory. In 1975 the Turkish Cypriot community controlled the northern part of the island, that is more or less 37% of the territory, while the rest remained in the hands of the Greeks.
1983 witnessed perhaps the most important break between the two sides when Turkey unilaterally declared the birth of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a political entity which was only recognised by Turkey as the United Nations has always only recognised the existence of a single sovereignty in Cyprus, denying ethnic division in the territory.
When Europe breaches international law
The bones of contention are multiple and finding an agreement is very difficult. Whereas Greek Cypriots would prefer the formation of a federation under a single, strong government, the Turkish minority prefer by far the idea of a confederation, thereby maintaining certain sovereignty on their portion of the territory and, consequently, protecting themselves. The gulf is notable and undermines all peace agreements. A final, disruptive complication followed in 1999: in Helsinki the European Union began the last phase of the enlargement process in Eastern and South Eastern Europe, in other words placing Cyprus, the Greek Cypriot state, within the first group of candidates. Since then Cyprus has carried out all the economic reforms required by the European Union to speed up its membership and today is seen as the most probable candidate, not least by virtue of the way it accepted the ‘acquis communitaire’. This has had a considerable effect on the respective positions of strength within the island.
An explosive impasse
This decision taken by the Community allowing Cyprus to join the Union even without the Turkish community is not only contrary to the UN resolutions about the unity of sovereignty on the island – and de facto is sanctioning legal division with possible repercussions in Bosnia for example. It is also letting the Greek Cypriot community off the hook with regard to reaching agreement with the Turkish community. The European Union has got itself into a two-player political game and is influencing the result. Cyprus’ membership, instead of representing a jumping off point for Turkey’s own membership in the future, has actually caused an explosive impasse.
Things need to move forward. New paths need to be followed so that reunion between the two communities is still a possible option.
Through the involvement of civil society and by pushing the desire for peace of all the island’s citizens, it is not unthinkable to imagine a regional policy which is able to achieve, step by step, concrete results. I refer, for example, to the role that local bodies in Member State countries could develop, promoting twinning activities with Greek Cypriot communities (the only ones to be recognised legally on an international level), restraining, however, confrontation with Turkish Cypriots.
The interest of civil society is surely the main path to follow but it is certainly not the only one. It would also be useful to launch an economic programme able to reduce the economic gap between the two communities, without forgetting the need for a more general détente between Greece and Turkey. The impasse can only be overcome through the realisation of parallel and synchronised projects on all possible levels. But the desire must come from the bottom up with help from European civil society.