Cyprus, Turkey and the EU – Getting it wrong again?

I don’t remember when I took out my first subscription to Time Magazine. I’m sure I must be one of their most loyal long-standing followers. Certainly there are occasions, generally during the lead-up to another United States presidential election, particularly when the opposition are going through the seemingly endless mumbo-jumbo of trying to select a candidate to challenge the incumbent, when I wonder why I bother. But I renew my subscription, mainly because I have never found a satisfactory substitute: a convenient and colourful package which keeps me more or less up-to-date with what’s going on in the world, from arts and literature to technology and politics, international affairs, sport and economics, to medicine and the environment.

Scary thought!

Sometimes you have to read between the lines, of course, and always be aware of its Americo-centric viewpoint – but lately they seem to have been working on that. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see a number of distinctly Muslim-sounding names showing up among their team of writers. On the other hand, there’s been another, more disturbing trend in recent issues: a most uncharacteristic negativity, or pessimism about the state of the world: the inevitability of food shortages, how to deal with the reality of sea-level rise – and, scariest of all, a cover story entitled ‘The Decline and Fall of Europe’[1].

I’m not an economist, and I’m not privy to any inside information. Some of us thought the capitalist system was on the verge of collapse back in the 70s, but somehow it managed to keep itself going. The US Dollar, the Euro and the Pound Sterling seem remarkably strong, considering the parlous state of the economies they represent, so clearly there are issues involved beyond my ken. Nevertheless, if United Europe does survive into the third decade of the 21st century, it will, in my opinion, be more a result of good luck than good management.

The original six nations of the 1957 European Economic Community had expanded to twenty-seven by 2007. The European Commission has stated that it believes accepting countries like Bulgaria and Romania into the Union will encourage them to make the reforms needed to bring them in line with European standards – and it’s becoming increasingly evident that they were wrong. There is no need for me to question the wisdom of accepting twelve new members since 2004. The current economic woes of the EU speak eloquently for themselves. I do not intend to argue for the acceptance of Turkey. I am well aware that the Commission has many reasons for postponement. However, it seems that the long-running Cyprus problem is about to blow up again, and this, I believe, is a direct result of misguided EU policies.

The Government of Turkey has announced its objections to two matters related to the Cyprus problem. The first is that the Republic of Cyprus (in fact the Greek republic of Southern Cyprus) is planning to begin offshore drilling for natural gas. The second is that the aforesaid ‘Republic of Cyprus’ is in line to take over the rotating presidency of the EU in 2012. The Turkish Government is understandably upset, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs has conveyed their strong feelings to the EU Commissioner.

Interestingly, the report I read referred to ‘the 37-year Cyprus conflict’, which implies that the problem began when the Turkish Government at the time sent troops to the island and established the partition which continues to this day. This line of thinking has led to international condemnation of Turkey, and recognition of part of the island as representing the whole. However, it doesn’t take much research to establish that the roots of the problem go back way beyond 1974.

Like everywhere else in this part of the world, the island of Cyprus has a long history of conquests and occupation. It became a Roman province in 58 BCE, and subsequently part of the Eastern Byzantine Empire. When the Arabs began their expansion in the late 7th century, Cyprus was in the firing line, and the Byzantine emperor came to a compromise arrangement with the Muslim caliph whereby both ruled the island jointly – until the Eastern Christians were able to reassert ownership in 965 CE. As we have noted elsewhere, crusading Christians from Western Europe did not focus their aggression on Muslims alone. Ever wondered where Richard the Lionheart actually was when Robin Hood and the downtrodden English were struggling against wicked King John? It seems at least some of his time was spent conquering Cyprus (from Christians) and rescuing a French damsel-in-distress (as knights were expected to do in those days).

For the next four hundred years, Cyprus was occupied and ruled by a succession of crusaders and their hangers-on, various local potentates and Genoese mercantile interests, until finally it was purchased by the Venetians, from whom the Ottomans took it by conquest in 1571. It should be noted that, during those four centuries, the religion of the rulers was Roman Catholicism, whose adherents had little love for their Eastern Orthodox cousins, whom they persecuted and kept in subservience.

Needless to say, the Ottoman conquest was not a peaceful affair. It was pretty much standard practice in those days for conquering armies to exact revenge on the defeated populace in proportion to the amount of difficulty they had put the conquerors to. Nevertheless, the Ottomans subsequently applied their ‘millet’ system to the island, whereby the Greek Orthodox community was allowed to maintain its own culture, language and religion. Without this tolerance, it is arguable that there wouldn’t be a Cyprus problem today – the island would be simply Turkish and Muslim. Take as a comparison, the situation in contemporary France and Spain, where religious dissidence was violently suppressed, resulting in homogeneous communities of (Roman Catholic) ‘faith’.

So, Cyprus became Ottoman territory, and remained such for the next three centuries. Its Greek Orthodox inhabitants may not have been altogether happy, but at least they were allowed to stay, to speak their own language, practise their own religion, and within certain limits, administer their own affairs. Ottoman domination came to an end in 1878 when the British claimed the right to occupy the island. How this came about is an interesting example of 19th century European power politics. Russia is a huge country, but an ongoing historical problem has been the lack of convenient all-seasons sea access to the west. Consequently, a major focus of its expansionist drive has always been gaining access to the Black Sea, the Aegean and the Mediterranean. An important facet of Britain’s foreign policy in the 19th century was preventing them from doing just that.

In 1877-78, the Ottomans were engaged in a losing war with Russia, who were altruistically supporting the nationalist struggles of Romanians and Bulgarians in the Balkans, and Armenians in eastern Anatolia. At the conclusion of this war, the European Great Powers met, at the Congress of Berlin, with the Ottoman Empire, to reorganise the Balkans, which more or less meant ejecting the Ottomans. While everyone was looking the other way, the Brits managed to insert a clause whereby they acquired ‘informal’ control of Cyprus. Behind this move, of course, were, the recent opening of the Suez Canal, the growing importance of oil as an energy source, and the associated inclination of Britain to consider the Mediterranean part of their own sphere of influence.

Informal control of Cyprus was formalised in 1914 when the British illegally annexed the island. The Ottomans weren’t happy, but were far too occupied fighting for survival elsewhere to offer any opposition. Many Muslim Turks left the island, especially during the population exchanges at the end of the Turkish War of Independence in 1923. In the 1950s a struggle for independence began, largely involving the Greek community who wanted not only independence, but ‘Enosis’ (union with mainland Greece). The British Government on its part was reluctant to surrender its strategically important military bases on the island, and opposed the insurgents, often employing local Turks as police to maintain order (thereby, needless to say, exacerbating inter-communal bitterness).

Eventually, however, the struggle was partially successful and Cyprus became an independent nation in 1960. The new constitution, guaranteed by the British, Greek and Turkish Governments, enshrined significant representative rights to the Turkish minority, somewhat reduced, but still close to twenty percent of the population. The Greeks hadn’t given up, however, and the main evidence of this was their choice of Michail Christodolou Mouskos, a.k.a. Archbishop Makarios III as first president of the new republic. Hard to imagine a more provocative choice, given the saintly archbishop’s well-known involvement in the Cyprus independence movement and strong support for Enosis, but there you are. Within three years he was proposing amendments to the constitution to reduce specific Turkish representation. Cypriot Turks withdrew from the government and increasing incidents of inter-communal violence broke out. Greeks from the mainland began entering Cyprus to aid the struggle for Enosis and Turks began to retreat into safer conclaves. In 1964, a United Nations peacekeeping force was set up on the island.

Over the next few years, The Turkish Government repeatedly warned the international community about violence and intimidation of the Turkish minority. There was talk but little action, and in July 1974, the military junta in mainland Greece sponsored a coup to depose the good archbishop and take over the island. Turkey’s first response to this was to ask the other guarantors of Cyprus’s independence, Greece and Britain, to intervene to stop renewed violence on the island. Receiving no reply, the government under Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit sent troops, and enforced partition of Cyprus into northern and southern sectors, which continue to this day. Interestingly, it was the threat of war with Turkey that led (by a process too complex to detail here) to the restoration of parliamentary democracy on the Greek mainland.

Interesting too is the fact that Great Britain (or the United Kingdom – the terminology still confuses me) retains two significant chunks of the island (in total, a little over 250 km2) where it maintains military bases. These areas, of course, are not within the Turkish sector, though in theory they are not Greek either.

Despite all the foregoing, it is the Greek southern section of the island that is recognized by the international community, and Turkey that is continually blamed for causing and perpetuating the problem. A 1998 decision of the European Human Rights Commission held Turkey responsible for denying human rights to Greek Cypriots by preventing them from returning to their homes in Northern Cyprus. On the other hand, in 2004, the European Union admitted the (Southern, Greek) Republic of Cyprus as a member, despite a clear stipulation in the 1960 Constitution that both sectors of the Cypriot community must agree before the island could join another state. Evidently going for the letter of the law rather than its spirit, the EU decided that, since it is not actually a ‘state’, the condition didn’t apply. Perhaps, in retrospect, Turkish Cypriots would have been better not to resign from the government back in 1963 – though, given the violence being perpetrated against their people, it’s difficult to see what else they could have done.

As I mentioned earlier, it is stated policy of the EU Commission to admit countries which may not have fulfilled all the prerequisites of membership, on the principle that, once they are in, they can more easily be brought into line. Well, ask Angela Merkel if she feels that Greece and Ireland, Spain and Portugal made much effort to bring their economies into line with EU requirements after joining. As for the ’Republic of Cyprus’, it’s hard to escape the feeling that international and EU acceptance has merely hardened their attitude to their Turkish brethren in the north. United Nations Secretaries-General, Boutros Boutros Ghali and Kofi Annan, both proposed peace settlements for the Cyprus issue. The most recent of these, the Annan Plan (2002), was accepted by the Turkish Government and the people of Turkish northern Cyprus in a referendum, but rejected by the Greeks in the south.

Once again the Cyprus issue is making headlines around the world. The Turkish Government is vociferously objecting to Greek Cypriot plans to conduct natural gas exploration in waters off the coast, and to the likelihood that Greek Cyprus will provide the next EU President. It is unlikely that Turkey would be prepared to go to war over either of these issues, given that they would undoubtedly be warned off by Europe and the USA. However, it is a sign of Turkey’s increasing confidence in the region that its government is prepared to take the initiative on the Cyprus issue rather than continuing to accept a defensive pariah role. If the international community decides to take a more even-handed approach to solving the problem, Mr Erdoğan and his government will probably consider the risk to have been worthwhile.

[1] Time Magazine, 22 August 2011

3 thoughts on “Cyprus, Turkey and the EU – Getting it wrong again?

  1. Cyprus became a member of the EU in 2004 not in 1981. This was as a result of Greece's threat to block the expansion of the EU and the inclusion of countries like Poland, etc.. Sadly, the EU work on a “total consensus” basis, that means small countries can veto strategic decisions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s