Cyprus: local perception, European illusion

The chances of an internal resolution of the enduring Cyprus conflict are receding. This reinforces the temptation of many to embrace a “European solution” as the way forward. But the European Union's understanding of democracy is less principled than Greek Cypriots would like it to be, says Hubert Faustmann.
Hubert Faustmann
16 April 2010

“The view of some in the Greek Cypriot political arena that a European solution is on the cards is unwise and shows their ignorance of the European Union […] I’m afraid that, from the very beginning, many Greek Cypriots have regarded the European Union not as a balance of rights and responsibilities that people assume when they join, but as a one-way ticket to getting everything they want and haven’t been able to get out of the international community over the previous period.”

David (Lord) Hannay: quoted in Jean Christou, “European solution? Dream on”, Cyprus Mail, 4 November 2004

The perennial Cyprus conflict passes another stage on 18 April 2010 when elections within the Turkish Cypriot community in the northern part of the island are held. The probable outcome is the coming to power of a hardliner who is likely to spoil the chances both of reconciliation with the Greek-Cypriot-dominated Republic of Cyprus and of political progress more generally.

This bleak political prospect is confirmation of the continued blockage of one  the most enduring international political disputes of the age - despite hopes of a breakthrough raised most recently in 2004 by the (ultimately abortive) “Annan plan” - the United Nations’ blueprint to reunify Cyprus. This article examines one of the most persistent arguments of Greek Cypriot opponents to the kind of solution envisaged in the Annan plan: that a notional “European solution” can be achieved as the instrument of moving beyond the intractable situation on the island.

The three ingredients

The harsh criticism cited above comes from the British special envoy during the negotiations on the Annan plan, which ended in failure after it was rejected by Greek Cypriots in a referendum in April 2004. Its target is a recurrent theme espoused by parts of the Greek Cypriot elite and public: that the European Union can be mobilised as an ally to provide more favourable parameters for a solution of the Cyprus question.

Indeed, the Greek Cypriots originally applied to join the European Union in order to strengthen their hand in the domestic Cyprus problem. Moreover, in 2004, the argument that EU membership would give the Greek Cypriots the chance to obtain a much better deal than the Annan plan fuelled the “no” campaign in the referendum; in the event, 76% of Greek Cypriots rejected the plan, while 65% of Turkish Cypriots voted “yes”. A few days later, on 1 May 2004, de jure the entire island of Cyprus - but de facto only the Greek-Cypriot-dominated part - became a member-state of the EU.

Since that moment six years ago, some of the Greek Cypriots’ leading (and usually more hardline) representatives have demanded what they call a “European solution” to the Cyprus problem - that is, one founded on the full implementation of European Union norms and values.

At heart, this putative “European solution” embodies three notions:

* Greek Cypriot majority rule to realise the democratic principle of one citizen, one vote

* respect for human rights, ensuring the full return of Greek Cypriot properties and refugees

* the full implementation of the EU’s acquis communautaire without permanent derogations (see James Ker-Lindsay, “The Deceiving Shadow of the EU? Cypriot Perceptions of the 'The European Solution”, in Othon Anastasakis, Kalypso Nicolaidis & Kerem Oktem eds., In the Long Shadow of Europe: Greeks and Turks in the Era of Postnationalism [Brill, 2009]).

In short, in its most extreme form, the “solution” would amount to a Greek Cypriot-dominated unitary state with minority rights for the Turkish Cypriots.

The three misperceptions

This idea of a “European solution”, understood as camouflage for Greek Cypriot majority-rule, is based on three misperceptions of the European Union  (see Stelios Stavridis, “Towards a ‘European Solution’ of the Cyprus Problem: False Promise or Real Opportunity?” [Cyprus Review, 18/1, Spring 2006]).

The first relates to the way the European Union solves problems and reaches agreements in conflict situations. The EU, as a “consensus machine”, routinely engages in hard bargaining in search of compromise based on the lowest common denominator of agreement. The goal of agreement influences a process that often provides for temporary (or even permanent) derogations and opt-out clauses (the euro currency’s exclusion of Britain, Denmark and Sweden is just one prominent example).

The second misperception of the European Union among Greek Cypriots relates to the role of the union in domestic and interstate conflicts. The EU has consistently avoided becoming overtly involved in the resolution of ethnic or religious conflicts within or between its own member-states. It encourages, supports and accommodates solutions, but does not shape them; it insists only on guarantees of human and minority rights for ethnic or religious minorities (which in any case are not disputed between Cyprus’s two main communities).

As a result and unsurprisingly, the EU has in the post-2004 period largely avoided taking sides in Cyprus. Its minimal involvement has consisted of half-hearted pressure on Turkey to honour its signature and extend the customs-union to the Republic of Cyprus by implementing the Ankara protocol. Thus the EU has in this case refrained from championing its own core values, which include a requirement that a candidate country (Turkey) recognises all its member-states. 

The European council uses a standard phrase to convey the nature of the solution to the Cyprus problem it envisages: “The EU is ready to accommodate a settlement in line with the principles on which the EU is founded”. This phrase, incorporated in the treaty governing Cyprus’s accession,  is supposed to signal the EU’s overall flexibility (rather than its commitment to particular forms of action); understandably, the proponents of a “European solution” interpret this phrase differently.

The third misperception relates to the European interpretation of democracy. In particular, there is an assumption that the EU is committed to one-person-one-vote and majority rule as the basis both for the internal state-structures of EU members and the functioning of the EU and its bodies themselves. In fact such notions are far from the consistent practice at both levels.

Where states are concerned, federal members (such as Germany) and consociational democracies (such as Northern Ireland) operate different procedures; and where EU institutions are concerned, the weighting of votes in the European parliament or council of ministers gives disproportionate power to smaller states (Cyprus, with 0.2% of the EU population, can exercise a veto over the other 99,8% on certain issues). The supporters of a “European solution” thus fail to register that it is by no means contrary to EU norms or understanding of democracy - at least at the level of the member-states - to give 18% of a population (the Turkish Cypriot proportion in Cyprus) political equality with the remaining 82%.

True, the proponents of Greek Cypriot majority-rule in Cyprus can argue that liberal-democratic practice enjoins this principle more in the observance than the breach; and that on a state level, no other liberal-democratic country has granted a minority of 18% the kind of political power-sharing rights Turkish Cypriots and Turkey demand (and were granted in 1960, in the high-level agreements of 1977 and 1979, and in the Annan plan). The liberal-democratic argument against strict majority rule in divided societies is the protection of the minority from “majority tyranny”; but this protection has so far not led to arrangements like the Annan plan.

Against this, the European Union at least is not a state but but a unique organisation comprised of interstate and supranational elements which does not operate according to “pure” democratic principles.  Moreover, power considerations in Cyprus must be taken into account here. Greek Cypriots enjoy no support by anybody involved in the Cyprus dispute (with the possible exception of Greece) in any attempt to reduce the Turkish Cypriots to a protected minority; and any future reunified Cyprus can only be based on a power-sharing model that affirms the basic principle of political equality between both main groups on the island.

The Annan plan shows that the EU has no problem accepting and accommodating Cyprus as a sui generis case of a democracy within its ranks, if this is what it takes to solve the problem. No significant actor within the EU (many Greek Cypriots excepted) will - in public at least - question the democratic credentials of a consociational Cyprus. Thus, any attempt by Greek Cypriots to abandon the principle of the political equality of the Turkish Cypriots - either before or after a solution - will not be supported by the EU.

The two legacies

There are two other components of the argument for a “European solution” in Cyprus that deserve to be briefly noted. The first is the human-rights dimension, whose core is the return of (or least compensation for) property lost in the Turkish military invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974, and the right to settle anywhere on the island. This issue carries more weight since these questions are indeed principles most likely to be actively supported by the European Union.

At the same time, a landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights - albeit not a European Union body - in March 2010 shocked the Greek Cypriots by indicating that remedies other than restitution were acceptable. Modern European experience shows that the ability of the defeated party to acquire compensation for or return of its property lost in a war is the exception. For example, in autumn 2009 the EU guaranteed - in the context of the ratification of the Lisbon treaty - that the Czech Republic would not be vulnerable to legal challenge through EU courts by the descendants of Germans ethnically cleansed from Czechoslovakia after 1945. In this respect, Cypriots of both communities are likely at the end of an agreement to be better off than their co-Europeans of this earlier generation - but most unlikely to succeed in ways that supporters of a “European solution” would like.

The second component is the right of all refugees to return, within the normative framework of European citizens’ freedom of settlement and residence. The advocates of a “European solution” argue that the implementation of  the acquis communautaire in a federative Cyprus would require any basic restrictions to be removed.

But the political logic of the 1977 and 1979 agreements provides - at least in the Turkish Cypriot interpretation - for a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation whose limits on Greek Cypriots' rights of residence in the Turkish Cypriot constituent state have been backed by the European Union through its support of the Annan plan. Such provisions turn the Greek Cypriots into second-class citizens within their own country and it might be difficult to maintain them as a permanent derogation. However, these provisions' accommodation within the EU remains a strong possibility.

Moreover, other European precedents offer Greek Cypriots little comfort. Within the framework of a special autonomous status, ethnic Swedes live as Finnish citizens on the Aland Islands and new residents require permission from the island’s authorities to settle there; and Malta and Denmark have secured permanent restrictions on non-permanent-resident EU nationals’ right to buy properties there (but do not restrict their own citizens’ right – which Cyprus would have to do).

The one approach

The European Union has frequently demonstrated - not least with the Annan plan - that its principles are not absolute but can be “violated” for the sake of pragmatic political accommodations and in the name of a greater good, such as the end of the division of the island and a solution to its problem.

The insensitive way and obvious double standards by which many international politicians and scholars support those derogations understandably offend Greek Cypriots. But Greek Cypriots are nevertheless left with an unpleasant choice: either accept them as the price for unification and their lost struggles of the 20th century or live on a permanently divided island. What Greek Cypriots can hope for - though even this is by no means certain - are clauses which would allow at least a change in the derogations in a post-solution Cyprus where a modicum of trust has been established.

The Turkish side is aware of the strain that its extensive political demands have put on European Union principles. The most visible sign is its insistence on enshrining the derogations into EU primary law as the safest way to block the EU courts from changing the elements of any future settlement. In real terms, this will place severe limitations on the rights of Greek Cypriots within their own country to enjoy the same rights as citizens of other EU memberstates in a future northern constituent state. But, this is exactly what is likely to happen in an eventual settlement, which will be considered by the EU as - in its own terms - a perfectly acceptable “European solution”.

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