Cyprus problem: A view from London

Cyprus problem: A view from London


By Thanasis Gavos – London

The new year will be the 40th since the Turkish invasion in Cyprus that led to the continuing occupation of the northern part of the island. This is a landmark that hasn’t gone unnoticed in London, especially as the UK government pays close attention to the developments over the efforts to restart negotiations between the leaders in Cyprus.

British politicians were initially encouraged by the promise of some breakthrough in mid-autumn. That was all before the deadlock that occurred when Dervis Eroglu rejected President Anastasiades’s precondition of a joint statement affirming the principle of a federation as the solution.

Now the feeling in London is that things have entered an area where the risk of complete collapse is a real threat, though not all hope is lost.

UK officials insist that HMS Government supports the renewed negotiation efforts, and that there is no room for any actor other than the Cypriots themselves to take things forward, within the UN-led process.

However suggestions have recently been made to people who are close to the UK government that London could “facilitate” a comprehensive solution by acting on issues directly concerning British interests. These suggestions have come at a time when politicians across the political spectrum in the UK have developed an even keener interest in Cyprus following the hydrocarbons discoveries and the new future they promise for the small island country and the wider region.

Does the UK have the leverage to do what Cypriots have consistently been asking from its governments in these last decades, namely “to exert pressure on Turkey” so it conforms with its international obligations, implements the UN resolutions and ends the occupation of Cyprus? The answer depends on whom you ask. Even if this power does lie with London, no one expects the great power in this case to bend over backwards in order to support Cyprus by infuriating a significant ally like Turkey, especially with no realistic practical gains.

“The natural gas could provide such a gain. First of all, were the Cyprus issue to be resolved Turkey would be the first beneficiary, as it would secure cheap gas from Cyprus. And the gas would become cheaper for the rest of the EU market as well, including the UK, as it would raise the dependence on Russian energy,” said an experienced Cypriot official who has put forward the same argument in meetings with British politicians and diplomats.

The Cypriot side considers the simultaneous governance of Cyprus and the UK by conservative administrations as a lucky coincidence that opens up further cooperation prospects. “The British are not our enemies,” a Conservative MP was recently told by a fellow Cypriot politician; not that such a reassurance changes anything for a significant number of British MPs from all major parties who have already lent their support to the Cypriot pursuit of justice.

In an indication of the constant exchange of news and views such an MP said he was “very interested in hearing a Cypriot colleague’s ascertainment that perhaps for the first time the Americans are so active with regard to Cyprus, having the island among their foreign policy priorities.” As he added, “along with our uninterrupted interest this could be the time to push ahead on all fronts until we reach a solution as detailed in numerous international resolutions.”

He and many of his colleagues have pointed to the extra boost that could be given to the whole peace process by confidence building measures, such as the return of Varosha; although not everyone in Westminster is convinced about the practicality of focusing on anything else than a comprehensive solution. “A mere distraction,” lamented a member of the House of Lords in another recent Cyprus meeting, during which he stressed the importance of keeping Turkey’s European ambition alive as a factor crucial to settling the Cyprus issue.

Even that brings the UK closer to the centre of the picture. “If we can achieve a solution based on EU principles, then do we really need the Treaty of Guarantee?” was one of the questions directly affecting British interests put forward in meetings between officials from the two countries. However, discussions on such matters don’t seem to have progressed further.

The case is the same as regards the second question that British politicians have been invited to consider: does the UK need both bases areas in Cyprus? And if indeed it needs both, could it consider a territorial adjustment?

Whatever the frequency, intensity and depth of such exchanges, one thing is mutually accepted: time is no ally of Cyprus. Especially so, one might argue, for Greek Cypriots. Even proven friends in London have started feeling the pressure. A leading MP expressed concern about the “security confidence” of Turkish Cypriots in case of a demilitarisation decision, a low-key and somewhat reluctant yet indicative intervention which did not pass unnoticed by people in the know.