The Eastern Mediterranean could cover between 15% and 16% of Europe’s needs in natural gas, Cyprus’ former foreign minister, Nikos Christodoulides, tells Kathimerini in an interview.
Christodoulides, who served as the Republic of Cyprus’ foreign affairs chief from March 2018 to January of this year and was head of the president’s Diplomatic Office from 2013 to 2018, talks about the thorny reunification talks at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana and what conclusions he has drawn about Turkey’s long-term foreign policy goals.
As far as domestic issues are concerned, Christodoulides, 48, says that he is encouraged by the feedback from citizens since he resigned from Cyprus’ Foreign Ministry amid an internal power struggle within the ruling right-wing conservative Democratic Rally party and especially in light of the presidential elections scheduled for next year.
You were in Athens recently presenting an updated version of your book on the Cyprus issue. How did your point of view as a researcher change after having hands-on experience with the negotiations?
As you know, I was part of the last negotiating process that culminated with the meeting at Crans-Montana in July 2017 and which, unfortunately, did not have the desired outcome. The experience of being part of that process confirmed, if not strengthened, the study’s basic conclusions about the constancy and repetitiveness of the positions brought to the table and about the instrumental role played by key actors outside of Cyprus. At Crans-Montana, but also throughout the entire negotiating process, outside factors, and Turkey more specifically, had a defining role on the course of the negotiations and, more importantly, on how they ended. I confirmed, first-hand, that there was a connection and continuity with the principles and facts on which older proposals had been based, that the reasoning which led to certain positions had not changed, and nor had the real motives and tactics being pursued. In many cases, these reminded me of the positions, approaches, ideas, initiatives and plans of previous decades, which I had once studied as a researcher and then as a diplomat.
Who would you say is responsible for the breakdown of talks at Crans-Montana?
Even though it is our duty to examine where we fell short, and this is something I always do, I will say quite openly that the responsibility for the failure at Crans-Montana rests with the Turkish side because of its insistence on certain positions, and more particularly on the matter of security and guarantees. Other outside factors such as the European Union’s first real participation helped the process along significantly, but at the end of the day, Turkey’s insistence on enduring positions did not allow us to achieve a positive outcome.
‘The fact that we did not agree to unconscionable and anachronistic terms is not what is driving Turkish policy’
Do you think that the failure of those talks emboldened Turkey even further, or had it already decided to adopt a tougher stance, such as on the matter of Varosha?
Anyone who studies Turkey’s foreign policy will come to the conclusion that it acts on the basis of a specific long-term strategy. This is the case with the Cyprus issue, but also toward Greece. The aim at Crans-Montana, as demonstrated by the minutes that have been brought to light as well as by the statements of Turkish officials, was, among others, for Turkey to secure guarantor rights and a permanent military presence on Cyprus, with our consent. I have heard and read opinions stating that Turkey’s revisionist policy was strengthened as a result of the unfortunate end of the Crans-Montana talks and by the tripartite partnerships we have developed in the region. These approaches remind me of the arguments put forward by certain people to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, blaming [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy and the EU for Russia’s actions – essentially blaming the victim, instead of the aggressor, for not consenting to something abhorrent in order to avert the reprehensible. The Turkish military’s occupation of the fenced-off area [of Varosha in Famagusta] did not take place after the 2017 talks. The fact that we did not agree to unconscionable and anachronistic terms is not what is driving Turkish policy. It is a mistake to lay the blame there and, effectively, take the onus off Turkey.
Are the conditions there for a new meeting or have we moved on to a different phase?
Despite the difficulties and problems, in no case should we stop trying to resume substantive talks on the basis of the agreed framework and taking into account the fact that the Republic of Cyprus is and will continue to be, even after a possible solution to the Cyprus problem, an EU member-state.
Do you see the possibility of an agreement that would allow natural gas to be transported from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe?
Developments and the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in combination with Europe’s energy dependence on Russia – which doubtless works to Moscow’s advantage – demonstrate the Eastern Mediterranean’s importance in Europe’s efforts to achieve energy independence even more strongly. With the right planning and strategic alliances – regional mainly – and with commitment and sincerity, our region could play a role and become an important new energy corridor for Europe. Let me be more specific: EU gas imports from Russia that will have to be replaced by alternative sources come to a total of 155 billion cubic meters per year. The available quantities in the Eastern Mediterranean (in the Aphrodite and Glaucus fields in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone and in Leviathan in the Israeli EEZ) amount to about 500 bcm, which is roughly 15-16% of the EU’s Russian gas imports. This is not a negligible percentage. Therefore, it is time for the countries of the region, which started their cooperation on the basis of mutual benefits that would initially arise through energy cooperation, to move in this direction and for the EU, in turn, to invest substantially and with concrete actions to take advantage of this prospect. It is a long-term choice, but broader developments confirm the need for immediate action.
The people of Cyprus will be voting for their next president in less than a year from now. What is at stake in the 2023 election?
The Cyprus issue has always been front and center for citizens in every presidential election, precisely because of the fact that the president of the republic is also the head, the leader, of the Greek-Cypriot community in the negotiations for resolving the issue. In this sense, the Cyprus issue, along with others of course, is at the top of what’s at stake, because it is an existential matter for Cyprus and for our people. As long as it remains divided, Cyprus will never be able to reach the maximum of its potential and the prosperity every citizen has a right to look forward to. From there on, the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine have created an entirely new situation on a global scale. We are likely on the cusp of a new period of multiple challenges on every front, so it makes sense for citizens to have expectations. I would say that what is generally at stake in the 2023 elections is how we move forward as a state at this stage. How we will address the ongoing problems troubling our society. How we will progress into the new age with the ambitious targets set by the EU for the green transition and digitization, despite the existing problems and given that the Cyprus issue is unresolved and Turkey remains rigidly stuck to its anachronistic positions. Citizens, and young people in particular, have high expectations but mostly they want hope of prosperity, which can only be achieved through well-paid jobs, higher standards in education, health, culture and social services, and a swifter and more effective justice system.
What would be your proposals as presidential candidate ahead of the 2023 race?
As you know, after resigning from the Cypriot Ministry of Foreign Affairs last January, I embarked on intensive talks to explore the possibility of putting my candidacy to the people’s judgment for the 2023 presidential election. I have contact with people representing the entire spectrum of society; I am talking to organized groups and individuals. I am listening and making notes on positions and proposals in a bid to understand the citizens’ true needs, to feel the pulse of society, so I can seriously consider the option on the basis of a comprehensive program that will provide answers and respond to the expectations of the Cypriot people for prosperity and hope for a better tomorrow. I think the time of making big promises is gone and that people want less talk and tangible progress. I am satisfied by how these contacts are going, a process whose initial, more unofficial, phase is coming to a close, and what I think I can say at this stage is that I am very encouraged by the people’s response and their willingness to discuss their ideas and concerns, as I am by the overall climate in my day-to-day contacts. This is something that gives me the drive to carry on with strength and determination.