The United Nations special adviser for Cyprus, Espen Barth Eide, has said he is very optimistic about the prospects of reuniting the ethnically split island.
In an interview with Kathimerini newspaper, the Norwegian diplomat says that unlike the 2004 Annan Plan, which was voted down by Greek Cypriots, this time a settlement will not be “imposed by somebody else” but will be the product of an agreement between both sides.
Eide also emphasizes the good chemistry between Greek-Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades and his Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, adding he is convinced they are both genuinely interested in reaching a solution.
Asked about the Mediterranean island’s natural gas deposits, the former foreign minister says that a peace settlement will make it “easier to deal with the whole hydrocarbons issue.”
What are the prospects for a solution and if you feel there are, why now?
My first answer to that is because the two leaders want it and they have sat down to do this; they have spent a lot of their time on this. The formal leaders’ meetings started in May and have happened uninterrupted until now. We’re having the next one on Thursday, the first after Christmas – that will be the 20th formal meeting between the two; today the negotiators have their 63rd meeting, and if you add the working groups and technical meetings, there are hundreds of meetings. That’s a big apparatus, there’s a serious effort. To go into the details – it’s not only high-level, it’s very serious, real people, some of the best people in both communities are spending a lot of time to get the property right, economics right and so on. My sense is they want it.
The second answer is that Cyprus has been living with a non-solution status quo reasonably well, so you can always say, “Why wouldn’t we continue?” But I think the answer to that is there is an understanding of two phenomena; one pointing in favor of a solution and one against – the non-solution. The first one is that some of the problems Cyprus has would be easier to deal with if they were together; we expect the combined economic growth of a united Cyprus to be much higher than the separate. It’s probably easier to deal with the whole hydrocarbons issue if you have settled your internal issues; there are a number of issues more on the economic front where things would be easier with a settlement. The other side is that the geopolitical environment in the world is not very benign; the Sunni and Shia are fighting and then you have the Islamic State, Syria breaking down, Iraq, Yemen, Russia and the big crisis with Turkey – every day you open a paper it’s worse than last week. In an interesting sense, this seems to have sharpened the mind of the Cypriot leaders that this is not a normal time in which we can take the status quo for granted. It’s a bad time to maintain a non-solution, so in a sense the external drama has almost been a wake-up call for “Let’s try to get this right.” The international community – which, broadly defined, is much more than guarantors, the big picture – UN, EU, US, Russia – would like to see a settlement in Cyprus because there are so many other deep-rooted difficult issues to deal with that getting Cyprus right could be a source of inspiration for regional developments. It could be a direct impetus to some of the Eastern Mediterranean issues. So I think that there’s a combination of domestic and international factors that makes it quite logical to look for this right now.
Could you describe the personal chemistry between the leaders?
Both of them are Limassolians; I think that’s actually quite important, not only because it’s shared but Limassol is – by Cypriot standards – a large city by the sea, is an outward-looking city in a sense. They are proud Limassolians of the same age, Akinci is one year younger, which he always reminds us of, but they are kind of the same age; they know each other from way back and they empathize and like each other – it’s perfectly possible to like somebody even if you disagree on certain issues. They know each other very well now after all this, and we can on the same day have tough disagreement and laughter and humor together, and this creates a bond – we are not talking about only the two of them but also the negotiating teams, Andreas Mavroyiannis and Ozdil Nami and their excellent support group, who I must say are very good people on both sides. They are gradually changing from being two opposing sides to be a team chosen by history in a sense to solve an age-old problem.
Do you feel the leaders really want to solve it as opposed to people in the past?
Absolutely. There are people in the past and people in the present, outside of this, that do not necessarily want it. It’s a complicated political landscape on both sides, and they want to solve this; it’s quite important that the papers, the documents are produced by them very pragmatically…
Compared to the Annan Plan, what’s different this time, from the UN side?
Just to give you an example, at the meeting today, the negotiators said, “We now have to discuss this particular issue. Who’s going to write the first paper?” “I can do that.” “Fine, you do that” … They send it and a couple of days later they comment. It’s not my paper, it’s not Angela’s paper, we’re there, we help but they write everything. They have a very pragmatic relationship – “I don’t mind if you start, I’ll put in my comments but somebody has to start” – which creates this ownership which I think is a big difference.
Do you feel that was lacking previously?
I feel that was lacking; I’m not criticizing anybody – we all learn from history but I think there was too much feeling that it was imposed by somebody else, so in that sense my role is different from my predecessor back then because I see it very much as something they should do themselves. We live with the fact that it may take time, but the outcome will then be that every single line in that final outcome will be something the leaders have to defend – they simply cannot blame a foreigner, because it wasn’t written by a foreigner.
The UN has many qualities but we are not particularly good at the economic aspects of a political settlement, or if we do we think of it as development aid, as we do in Africa. But here we’re actually talking about a middle-income, modern European country in the EU, so of course in that sense we have to think about the economic dimensions of this, and of the European economic dimensions of this. We have mobilized very strong support from the European Union, who I will say some years ago – of course they dealt with Cyprus as a member-state, as Greece or any other member-state – but they were not that engaged in the Cyprus problem, maybe some fatigue after 1974, now they are deeply involved. The good news is that this is welcome by both sides; that was not the case with previous Turkish-Cypriot administrations – either they felt that the EU was in the pocket of the other side so they wanted to keep the EU at a certain distance, apart from regional development funds and so on. The EU is now embedded in this in the sense that we want European principles to permeate the solution, not only in the chapters.
Do they? Sometimes they try to deviate, which is understandable from some sides. How will you manage to get around the security and guarantees issues?
I’ll answer on two levels, the Cypriot level and the European level. The Cypriot level is we’re aiming for a solution on the security and guarantee part of the discussions where both communities can feel safe and secure without seeking their security to the detriment of the other side. So, I want my security to be high but I don’t want it to be based on making you insecure, which means that the current relationship has to change, because today this is not the case. The starting position here of course is well known – [the position of] Greek Cypriots supported by Greece is there shouldn’t be anything like troops or guarantees, and [the position of] Turkish Cypriots supported by Turkey is that there should be something like that because the minority needs some external protection.
The reality is that the key to this issue may not actually be inside that chapter, it may be in the whole solution. In the governance and power-sharing and the property deal, all these issues will say something about continuity and change when it comes to how life is perceived on either side and the more we achieve a sense of security in the non-military field, the easier it will be to deal with security as a narrowly defined issue. Greece and Turkey and the UK insist that they want to contribute to a solution here; [Greek Foreign Minister Nikos] Kotzias just told me – and I believe him very much – that he is also looking for creative resolution to this, and that’s also what I hear in Ankara. They are not aligned, that’s well known, but there’s the will to look into how we can find a solution that is compatible with the desires of both sides, and that’s the final chapter that we will solve. I may have some ideas about it but I’ll be careful about saying too much more about it.
On a European level, there are many security arrangements in the EU; you have neutral countries, you have countries which are allied, you have countries which welcome foreign troops – American for instance – so the EU does not prescribe a particular security. The EU has a solidarity clause that is not exclusive – it doesn’t say you cannot have other relationships, which is proved by Greece, for example, which as a member of NATO too has an American guarantee.
There’s a difference – Greece welcomes the troops but some people in Cyprus don’t…
We are fully aware that things have to change by all means, and again this is an issue for which Cyprus itself – the two sides – has to find its own solution, its perspective on this; and [as far as] the guarantor powers who currently exist [are concerned] – whether you like it or not they exist, the treaties are there, you may not like them, but they are there – there must be some kind of process where they are either changed, abandoned, amended or continued. I’m not suggesting… I frequently read in the press that I’m proposing conferences and such – I don’t, I have never said that and I’m happy to say it again. I only said that we all know that guarantor powers must be involved in some way; that does not say that we shouldn’t have somebody else as well, that it’s only them, but of course Greece, Turkey and the UK cannot be forgotten – they were part of the 1960 construct.
Speaking of conferences, Davos is coming up, a lot of people will be there – Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat were there, Andreas Papandreou and Turgut Ozal were there…
That was quite important in 1988 because the situation was rather bleak…
Do you feel that fruitful discussions could take place?
I think it’s good that people are together – the more the merrier – but we’re not planning to have this as a secret, we actually don’t need the back channel, we have a main channel which works well for the moment. Being in the Swiss Alps and being together can bring things, but let’s see what develops.
Will UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon be there?
US Vice President Joe Biden will be there…
That’s always a good thing. But there is no parallel conference – I want to be very clear. It’s not like we have used this as a disguise for a five-party conference.
But meetings could take place, not necessarily as a conference, but if people are there, and they are free…
I’m not going to tell anybody not to meet.
There is tremendous interest – international political leaders are interested, but so are international economic leaders; there are a lot of people in Davos who would like to meet the leaders, just to get a feel of this – investors for instance, private sector. Most of the participants in Davos are private sector – CEOs of big companies, and the IMF and so on. But I’m talking about actual private sector, and they are of course looking now – the big ones are always interested in what the geopolitical trends are because they matter sooner or later in their economy. But also I think a united Cyprus will be very attractive place to invest if you are operating in the intersection between Europe and the Middle East – it’s a European country with European institutions, particularly with a settlement, and they will be very close to the Levant, which is still interesting but particularly difficult to operate inside, so there is great potential. But I wanted the leaders to be there to meet that kind of people.
Would a meeting with big companies by both leaders be doable, as opposed to just one, to get a sense of how they feel?
The nature of the Davos meeting is that people get together by design or by chance; there are big meetings, small meetings, so a lot of people will interact. I think it’s good that they’re there, and there are many opportunities, but we’re letting it flow naturally – I just know there’s a lot of interest.
How do you see the role of Greece, which usually follows Cyprus, and the role of Turkey, which sometimes imposes things? As the mediator, how do you see the two motherlands?
First I would say it’s quite healthy. The direct involvement of both of them in domestic issues – issues that are purely Cypriot – is nonexistent. They are very careful about not imposing solutions – they are interested, they follow, they read, they’re well-informed, and I go frequently and talk to both sides, but they are not telling the Cypriots what to do, which is quite healthy.
I also think they are preparing themselves – Greece and Turkey and the UK – for the day where they have to show their cards, in a sense, on security. We know their formal positions that are out in the open but my sense is that there is creative thinking going on on how this can be overcome because it is, in my strong view, in everybody’s interest to get this – with all the other issues we have – it’s good for Greece and good for Turkey to get this over and done with and to have stability and predictability in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Again it’s not really up to me to say, but it’s difficult not to imagine that a solution in Cyprus will not also help Greek-Turkish relations and EU-Turkey relations and so on. Right now, there is a newfound interest in Turkey in the EU and there is a newfound interest, re-emerged in a sense, in Europe in Turkey, which we – I mean we the Cypriots, the leaders – should capitalize on because that means that two very important players, Greece and Turkey, are now looking for things to do together, and Cyprus is an obvious chance, so I think we will try to use this in the interest of a Cyprus peace settlement.
What is your view on the energy dimension?
Let me try to be precise on this, because somebody always gets annoyed when I speak about the energy dimension. My hope is that through this process we will make it easier for Cyprus and its neighbors to find the most logical solutions to the hydrocarbons issue, commercially rational decisions. I am not suggesting a particular answer to that, but it’s always healthy to take the geopolitics out of it, because the political considerations may inspire you to make not the most optimal decision. If a certain transport route would be available, then you have a more real choice – what that choice is, is up to a rational decision.
Interestingly, if we have a settlement, the hydrocarbons issue is already solved – we don’t need to negotiate, it’s done – it’s a federal capacity. Natural resources reside with the federal, and it should be in everybody’s interest; this is a convergence that existed prior to both Akinci and Anastasiades, which they have confirmed.
Where are we close and where are we not? For example, I know we spoke about guarantees, but would Greek Cypriots be able to go back to their former homes?
For the many people whose question is “Can I go back?” we already know that the answer is yes, you can go anywhere you like, including back, because it will be one country with free movement and four freedoms – you can go and you can buy and you can operate and you can do business and so on. “Can I go back to that particular house or property?” – that’s in the property chapter; it seems that we are aiming at a settlement where if you yourself are actually a refugee from that particular [place]… you probably can, but here there are details because this is a property deal but in the more physical sense, you can because we are growing one European state. All Cypriots will be citizens of Cyprus with equal rights, and the Bill of Rights will be federal. Long before my time, they agreed, so that’s the premise – bizonal, bicommunal. Bizonal means two constituent states, bicommunal means two communities, and these don’t have to be congruent, so you can live in the Turkish-Cypriot state but remain a Greek-Cypriot community member and so on. There are many ways to play with this, but the point is, which is very important for European standards, is that nobody will have less rights than anybody else – everyone will vote at all levels of government, it’s just exactly how and where you vote will depend on these arrangements.
On the financial aspects, will there be a fund? Do you feel comfortable that there will be enough financial support?
One of the reasons I hope that we will finally settle the property deal as soon as possible is that we need the data to get the exact cost, because if you ask how much it will cost, I can’t even tell you, it’s not possible… All the numbers you see are based on some kind of loose assumption, and typically brute numbers, not net numbers, so it’s the cost without counting what’s already paid before and what can be done in other ways. Some people will be reinstated because there is no money involved, maybe there are old properties available and there’s no conflict, or some people will have alternative property which is a value but not money – we need to know more about that before we can make that calculation. An important message is that all the studies that have been done supported by the international financial institutions find that, over time, the solution pays for itself; the added growth that the solution brings – that delta – creates enough money for all the costs, of course over time. So you still need up-front money, like an investment. I think there will be donations, grants, they can be public and private – there may also be some private money mobilized. It should be thought about as an investment, just like you build a factory, you spend money, but you spend the money to earn money later. So here is an investment in Cyprus so that in the interest of Cypriots and other interested parties, the Cypriot will do better. It’s not a country that will be in need of long-term subsidies; it’s a country that needs some up-front help to get over a particular issue. I mention that because I think it’s easier to convince donors to come up with that kind if one-off support for a particular deal than to say, “Can you start subsidizing for an indefinite future?” Given the strong international engagement in getting this over and done with – this anomaly in the EU set-up where you have a member on the agenda of the Security Council, it shouldn’t be that way – the Europeans have a real interest in overcoming this and it has a certain price tag.
What are your feelings on the alternating presidency?
I am not in the business of supporting or not supporting; I’m facilitating the process, so I’ll support what the leaders agree on. This is one of the very few outstanding issues on governance – it’s a big one, but there are a lot of governance issues which are done, such as the composition of the Senate, the lower house, the judiciary, terms, a lot of detail in that. This [rotating presidency] is one of the issues that will be part of the final package.
Do you feel comfortable that they will, among themselves, be able to find a mutually acceptable, workable solution?
I think so. Things have been going well, we are clearing the ground in the sense that that there’s more and more behind us, there’s more clarity on where we could go, but I also want to say I understand and empathize – we need to understand that at the end of the day you’re making a compromise. A solution is a compromise, and that means that you cannot have 100 percent success on all chapters compared to your initial position, because then there is no agreement; Anastasiades knows that not only does he need a “yes,” so does Akinci, and Akinci knows it’s the same the other way around. The two leaders need to look for what’s most important for you, and what’s most important for me, and if that’s not exactly the same thing, we can probably find something. If they achieve that, their next challenge will be to explain to their two constituencies, the two communities, that this deal is actually the best available deal, this is what we can get – it will not be everything we always fought for, but we can live with this. And that’s the political sell, that is their job; we shouldn’t do that.
From the Greek side it’s kind of difficult to see how a Turkish-Cypriot president can come, from only 20 or 25 percent of the country. Many Greek Cypriots might be comfortable with a vice president that has veto powers, but being president of 100 percent of the island when you come from one-fifth or a quarter, it’s a bit of a stretch…
I live in Switzerland, where they have a rotating presidency – it works very well there, which means sometimes there’s a Francophone president, that’s not the majority. But of course it depends what the president means; if you have a tradition of one strong man that calls the shots, or a figurehead – from German to French – and there are many things in the middle. So part of that discussion is about what it means to be the president – is it symbolic? Is it real? I don’t have a view on that, and I shouldn’t have a view on that, but what I do have a strong view about is that I really want to contribute to political decision-making systems that work, that actually deliver decisions, because one of the reasons that we keep politicians is that we want them to actually make choices and make decisions, solve issues. The most dangerous thing is that you have systems that just produce deadlock and disagreements, so there’s been a lot of work in what we call deadlock-resolving mechanisms to avoid reaching a stalemate, which can then gradually undermine the new construction. Which brings us to the point that security is about much more than troops; it’s that people actually feel they can invest, so both communities will live together but also preserve their integrity as a community in the long run, come rain or shine.