Squaring the political circle in Cyprus

Turkish Cypriots have a legitimate complaint they have not received equal attention from the EU’s institutions

To square the circle is an impossibility in geometry but in politics it is very common is how the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres characterised the challenges posed by the Cyprob to justify another round of talks after failing to get negotiations off the ground the week before last in Geneva.

It was a bold assertion considering intractable political problems such as the Arab Israeli conflict in Palestine, the Armenian Azeri war over Nagorno-Karabakh and the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir have not squared the circle either. Even in Northern Ireland the Protestant Catholic conflict that we thought was sorted since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is unravelling after Brexit.

So what could Antonio Guterres have been thinking when he said squaring the circle is common in politics? Perhaps what he meant is the same as what the 19th century German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck meant when he said that politics is the art of the possible.

When I was at the English School a hundred years ago we studied European history from a book by the English historian A J P Taylor called Struggle for the Mastery of Europe 1848 -1918.

A classmate of mine named Herodotos, who loved history like his namesake in classical times, picked out a felicitous quote from Taylor’s book as particularly interesting. It read: “it is fascinating to speculate what Bismarck might have done had he not been dismissed by the Emperor.”

The Emperor was Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Taylor was obliquely suggesting that had Bismarck stayed in power and practiced the art of the possible, World War I might not have happened – neither would World War II nor possibly the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Unlike many politicians, Antonio Guterres, is a science graduate who was prime minister of his country from 1995 to 2002 and experienced firsthand the politics of compromise and consensus in the EU – the art of the possible.

What is politically possible in Cyprus is determined by a number of factors including history, geography, the nature of the Cypriot character and the attitude problem Greeks and Turks have towards each other.

It is also affected by the 1960 independence agreements and the constitution, but as both sides honoured those laws more in the breach they can be put to one side. EU law, however, is different; so far as I know both sides wish to be part of the EU – the Turkish Cypriots even voted for it in the 2004 referendum, albeit indirectly.

Yet the Treaty of Accession of Cyprus to the EU and its Protocol 10 legally divides rather than unites Cyprus while simultaneously calling for a comprehensive settlement. It is not the final word on the subject but it has to be complied with for northern Cyprus to be assimilated into the EU.

Protocol 10 was conceived in unusual circumstances. As frequently happens the best laid plans can go wrong and so it was with Cyprus’ entry into the EU in 2004. The UN plan supported by the EU was to set up a federal Cyprus to be voted in by both communities enabling Cyprus to join as one state with a federal government in effective control of the whole of its territory.

For reasons that are now water under the bridge, the Greek Cypriot population voted against the UN plan in the referendum of 2004; whether you agree with the outcome or not it is no good crying over spilt milk. President Anastasiades famously did not agree with the outcome but as the facts changed and he became president, he changed with the facts. But to be fair, if you have a referendum you abide by its outcome and move on.

And the EU did move on with alacrity. It produced Protocol 10 to cater for the fact that whereas Cyprus joined the EU as one sovereign state the EU’s legal order had to be suspended in areas not under the effective control of the government of RoC. This was necessary because the EU has no power to enforce its legal order in member states and has to rely on the state power of its members to enforce its laws.

As the RoC was not in effective control of northern Cyprus, the EU had to suspend the operation of its legal order there. It could not rely on the state power of the ‘TRNC’ as it had been declared illegal by the UN in 1984.

This upset many Turkish Cypriots who felt as though they were penalised for supporting the UN-EU federal plan. While understandable, the dismay felt by Turkish Cypriots ignores the legal corner the EU found itself having earlier agreed to limit its freedom of action.

Protocol 10 states in its preamble that the EU is committed to a comprehensive settlement consistent with UN Security Council Resolutions that provide for a federal settlement and that it is prepared to accommodate any settlement consistent with the principles on which the EU was founded.

The UN resolutions call for a bicommunal bizonal federation with political equality. Political equality is not numerical equality but it is not limited in magnitude or scope.

The principles on which the EU is founded are contained in the Treaty on European Union; they are those of freedom, equality, democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. Crucially the treaty also requires that in its activities, the EU must observe the principle of the equality of its citizens who shall receive equal attention from its institutions.

The text of Protocol 10 provides for the assimilation of northern Cyprus into the EU in the event of a settlement. It has to be proposed by the European Commission and approved by a unanimous vote of the Council of all member states including the RoC. Cosmetic provision is made for the economic development of northern Cyprus. However, Turkish Cypriots have a legitimate complaint they have not received equal attention from the EU’s institutions even after making allowance for the fact they are beyond the EU’s legal order.

All in all it is a fine mess the EU landed the Turkish Cypriot community and although it has no legal obligation to procure a settlement the Union has a political stake in getting one just like it did for Ireland during the Brexit negotiations.

Despite its expertise in federalist thinking, the EU has not yet suggested federal models of its own to nudge the process forward. Conceptual models in furtherance of bringing about a comprehensive settlement seventeen years after Cyprus joined would be well within the European Commission’s function of ensuring application of EU treaty law as it was originally intended.

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