Is it time for a united Cyprus?

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As the world agonises over the disintegrating states of the Middle East, it may be heartening to note that Cyprus – an island already more famed for tourism than turbulence – could prove to be the exception to the rule on the region’s westernmost edge. The uneasy union of the Greek Christian majority and the Turkish Muslim minority collapsed in 1974, when a Greek military coup attempted to unite Cyprus with the Greek mainland, provoking a Turkish occupation of the North. Now, as many nations in the area fall apart, there are hopes that the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus may, once again, form one undivided union. Indeed, relations between the two entities have markedly improved since the 2004 Annan Plan, the last attempt at resolving the issue. Vehicles and pedestrians are now free to cross the border with minimum checks; the Presidents of both units, Anastasiades and Akıncı, have openly discussed an agreement. And, with distinguished politicians from Jean-Claude Juncker to Philip Hammond expecting reconciliation soon,  most consider reunification to be inevitable. This begs the question: could Cypriot unity be one of the biggest geopolitical stories of 2016?

Such an event would have enormous benefits for the island. In December, The Telegraph suggested that reunification would boost Cypriot GDP by €5bn within five years – a significant increase given that the GDP of the southern and most developed republic was €21.1bn in 2014. Tourists have been largely undeterred by the unusual situation in Cyprus, with 1.2 million of them visiting the northern republic in the past year, but reunification could increase numbers still. Fikri Toros, President of the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce, predicts that tourist numbers for the whole island will surge from 4.2 million to 10 million in a matter of years. Ultimately, however, it is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey, which has the most to gain from a united Cyprus. The government of the Greek Republic, itself a member of the EU since 2004, has blocked efforts to integrate the north into the European market. Full admis- sion to the EU would facilitate Turkish Cypriot businesses’ dealings with other member states, bringing wealth into a nation currently feeling the effects of a trade embargo, reducing unemployment and diminishing its dependence on Turkey.

Of course, before such gains can be made several obstacles will have to be surmounted, some more daunting than others. The religious conflict blighting the region is unlikely to be an issue here. Despite the heterogeneous population, Cypriot Muslims are some of the most secular in the region, while the Christians seem equally peaceable in their outlook. The legal transition should also be smooth, President Akıncı of Northern Cyprus having ensured that the breakaway republic has kept up with the legal innovations of the southern Greek Republic and of the EU. Even the presence of 35,000 Turkish troops in the north of the island would cease to be a problem if a settlement were reached. President ErdoÄŸan of Turkey – the man most able to prevent a settlement – has expressed  frustration at having to sponsor the northern state, according to The Guardian, and ultimately supports a reunification which could accelerate Turkey’s own acceptance into the EU.

Having noted all this, it is easy to see why Mehmet Ali Talat, a former leader of Northern Cyprus, might be quoted by Politico as expecting “a solution in March and then a referendum in summer.” Nonetheless, this prediction may be overly hopeful. Firstly, the issue  of property would have to be addressed; the 1974 evacuations of Turkish and Greek Cypriots to the north and south regions of the island respectively meant that many residents had been forced to abandon their property before fleeing. There has been intense debate on how to remedy the situation, with some suggesting that refugees be compensated for their losses, whilst others advocate the more controversial solution of handing back property to the original owners. In all likelihood, debate is set to rage on around this particular point of contention. But perhaps the biggest hindrance to reunification in 2016 is the bureaucratic inertia pervading a potential settlement. Many speeches have been made, with some of the world’s most illustrious statesmen and diplomats declaring themselves optimistic about a speedy resolution. In the past year, however, little concrete progress has been made toward a complete political union. So with 20 UN talks since May 2015 on the issue having ended without a conclusion, one would have to agree with Anastasiades’ verdict that reunification in 2016 may be “too optimistic”.

In short, although we are set to witness the birth of a united Cypriot nation at some point and a hasty resolution is not entirely impossible, we may have to wait until after the year’s end to see it happen. For now, the Middle East, Cyprus included, continues to be simultaneously held back and hampered by division.

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