The ‘National Issue’ has been absent from this year’s presidential campaign in Cyprus, but has the issue truly gone away? Professor James Ker-Lindsay argues reunification will be the most pressing issue for whomever wins this year’s election—and the EU should pay close attention too.
This weekend, Greek Cypriots go to the polls to elect a new president. At one time, the Cyprus Problem would have been a major topic of debate in the campaign. But not now. While the candidates have all presented their vision for a settlement process, the electorate is more focused on economic and domestic political matters. The subject of reunification is no longer the centrepiece of national politics in the way that it once was. While some may see this as part and parcel of a growing political maturity, this indifference on the ‘National Issue’ should actually be a very real cause for concern for all sides, and for the European Union.
In some ways, the apathy is understandable. Since the early 1960s, the United Nations has been trying to broker an agreement between the island’s Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. After 50 years, many Cypriots increasingly believe that the search for a settlement is pointless.
This sense of hopelessness was compounded last year with the breakdown of the latest attempt by the United Nations to reunite the island. After several years of talks on the island, the UN brought the two sides together in the Swiss mountain resort of Crans Montana to try to resolve the last few outstanding issues standing in the way of a comprehensive settlement. At the time, there was a palpable sense of optimism that a deal was possible. However, after ten days of intensive negotiations, the talks collapsed with the two sides blaming the other.
Although some observers thought that the talks could be rapidly resurrected, this was never likely. No meaningful discussion was ever going to be possible until after these presidential elections in the Greek Cypriot-controlled Republic of Cyprus.
As things stand, Nicos Anastasiades, the current president, looks to be on course to win the first round. However, he will not secure the fifty per cent needed to secure an outright victory. This will see him face a run-off. His opponent will be either Stavros Malas, who is supported by the Cypriot communist party, AKEL, or Nicholas Papadopoulos, the leader of the centre-right Democratic Party (DIKO). At present, they appear to be neck and neck for runner-up spot. But whoever goes through to the second round, polls also show that Anastasiades is on course to eventually secure another term. (That said, there is no room for complacency. Cyprus has a track record of throwing up surprises. Many observers remember the 1993 election, which saw a first-round victor look set to win the second run, only to lose by a few hundred votes.)
Regardless of who eventually wins, the growing indifference within the Greek Cypriot community will need to be challenged and talks resurrected. The widely held view that the long-standing status quo can continue to hold indefinitely is no longer realistic. Developments on the island and in Turkey are a cause for real concern: if Cyprus is not resolved in the next few years, there is a very real chance that it will never be reunited.
First of all, the Turkish Cypriot community is coming under real strain. Having been isolated for many decades, many young Turkish Cypriots have left the island to build new lives abroad. Settlers from Turkey have been taking their place. Although the situation is not perhaps as dire as some suggest, there are many Turkish Cypriots who genuinely fear for the future of their community in the medium to long term. Without Turkish Cypriots, there is no prospect for reunification.
Secondly, and more immediately worrying, Turkey is becoming increasingly unstable. Under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country has steadily drifted further away from the European Union. There are now very real concerns about democracy and basic freedoms in the country. No serious observer believes that Turkish membership of the EU remains a realistic prospect. This means that the one thing that kept Turkish policy towards Cyprus stable has disappeared. There are growing concerns that Erdogan may simply decide that if a solution is no longer a feasible, Turkey should annex the north.
Should this happen, Cyprus will be permanently divided. And Turkey will be forever estranged from Europe. The hardest of hard borders will have been created on Cyprus—and it will be a hard border between the EU and a Turkey that has taken a very troubling path.
While many may like to believe that the status quo in Cyprus is sustainable, it is not. Whether they realise it or not, the Turkish, Greek, and European communities need a settlement. For the Turkish Cypriots, it is about their long-term survival. For the Greek Cypriots, it is about avoiding creation of a dangerous and militarised hard border with a Turkey heading in a very worry direction. For the European Union, reunification it is about avoiding a potential flashpoint with a country that it once saw as a potential member, but now increasingly views as a source of instability.
Greek Cypriots have become apathetic about the National Issue at the very moment when they need to be more aware than ever of the consequences of failing to reunite the island. Whether they like it or not, whoever wins the forthcoming presidential election cannot afford to let the Cyprus Problem drift for much longer.
James Ker-Lindsay is Professor of Politics and Policy at St Mary’s University and Senior Visiting Fellow at the European Institute, LSE.