Cyprus: Time to seize the moment

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

In the 4th Keith Kyle Memorial lecture on British - Cypriot relations, Minister for Europe David Lidington emphasised the importance of achieving a settlement for Cyprus.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to thank you all for coming today, and I would like to thank Dr Zenon Stavrinides, the General Secretary of the Association of Cypriot, Greek and Turkish Affairs, for inviting me to make this 4th memorial Keith Kyle lecture on British - Cypriot relations. I am delighted to be the fourth British Minister for Europe making this address.

I am very glad to be able to support the work of Dr Stavrinides and the Association, which promotes positive relations between those countries and provides a forum for open and frank discussions on the issues that matter. It is so important to be able to engage in honest dialogue in order to resolve these issues and chart a way forward for the region. As you well know, these countries have much shared history - some of it troubled and complex. But we must not overlook the fact that their futures too will be closely connected and this is what we must work towards.

This Government is heavily invested in the political issues that are the focus of your Association’s work. We strongly support the UN led efforts to reunify Cyprus and are firm champions of Turkey’s accession to the European Union. As the Minister for Europe, these are two of the priority issues in my portfolio so I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to you today and press home my determination to see progress made. As the title of this lecture makes clear: it is time to seize the moment.

I am also honoured to be able to speak in memory of Keith Kyle, a distinguished writer and broadcaster with an extraordinary capacity for making sense out of the most complex, politically sensitive scenarios. As a keen historian myself, I truly appreciate his lucid account of the Suez Crisis, in a book which has rightly become the definitive analysis of that critical moment in Britain’s modern history.

Keith’s knowledge of politics and history was as broad as it was deep. From the Middle East to Central Africa, the United States to Northern Ireland. But we are here this evening because of his interest in Cyprus and his active membership of the Association for Cypriot, Greek and Turkish Affairs. I regret that I never had the opportunity to discuss with him some of the issues the region faces today. I would have welcomed the benefit of his wisdom, insight and political sensitivity.

The bilateral relationship

Inevitably any discussion on Cyprus would swiftly gravitate towards the Cyprus Problem and the ongoing talks. And this will, of course, be the focus of my address this evening. However before I discuss the settlement negotiations I would like to talk more broadly about Britain’s relationship with Cyprus. It is a deep relationship with a history and complexity which Keith would have appreciated. But it is also a dynamic, modern relationship that brings many benefits to both our countries.

Cyprus is an important partner for the UK both in the EU and the Commonwealth: alongside Malta we are the only countries that are members of both of these organisations.

Links between us are strong. There are 77,000 Cypriot-born people living in the UK today - that’s slightly more than the average parliamentary constituency. And there are over 300,000 people of Cypriot descent living in the UK. That’s more than the population of Brighton and by some estimates, even more than Nicosia.

The flow of people between our countries binds us together. More than one million British nationals visit Cyprus every year and over 11,000 Cypriots are currently studying in British colleges and universities, which we are very pleased about. This exchange enables us to understand each other’s cultures and can help us work together for the prosperity and security of both our countries.

We also have strong economic ties: UK exports to Cyprus are worth hundreds of millions of pounds per year and we import a similar amount. And it is not just trade. There is more than £10 billion worth of foreign direct investment by Cyprus into the UK. Indeed the structure of our economies, with their strong service sectors - particularly financial services - is very similar. As are our legal systems, both based on Common Law principles. This gives us many shared interests both within the EU and bilaterally.

It is a relationship that people care deeply about. We have a lively Cypriot media in the UK, multiple diaspora groups and significant parliamentary interest in the affairs between our two countries. In fact several members of the Cyprus All Party Parliamentary Group, whom I spoke to in January, visited the island only a matter of weeks ago and the Foreign Affairs Committee have visited twice in the last three years.

As with many close relationships, the UK and Cyprus have at times had misunderstandings and disagreements. I’ve heard the relationship described as accident prone, which I think is unfair, but I do agree that we are hampered at times by a certain tendency to be judged not on actions but on suspected motives. However I believe that we should look forward, not back, towards a strengthened relationship in 2011 and beyond. The 2008 Memorandum of Understanding highlights the breadth of our relationship and sets out a clear framework for potential cooperation on a range of bilateral, EU and regional issues. It also restated our commitment to working to support Cypriots as they seek to reunify their island.

Britain is committed to this MoU and to continuing the cooperation it has fostered so far. In line with its terms, the UK and Cyprus have been extending their collaboration in areas as diverse as finance, road safety, policing and football hooliganism. This has involved bringing Cypriots to the UK to share our experiences and see how we tackle issues which are a priority for both of us. It has also involved sending UK experts to Cyprus to provide advice having got firsthand experience of the situation on the island. In the last few months the High Commission in Nicosia has been involved in running highly successful seminars looking at Football Hooliganism and Human Trafficking. The UK has also worked closely with Cyprus on environmental issues. The UK Trade and Investment team in Nicosia supported British firms working with the Cypriot Authorities and their local partners to establish the first wind farm on the island.

Looking ahead to next year, much of the UK’s attention will turn towards the 2012 Olympics in London. I’m sure many Cypriots will be making use of their friends and family in the city to come and watch what we expect to be a spectacular event. I gather that a particular focus is likely to be on the gymnastics, where 17 year old Chrystalleni Triokomiti is a strong contender to win Cyprus’ first Olympic medal after her impressive haul of 2 golds, a silver and 2 bronze medals in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi last year.

But that is not the only potential first for Cyprus next year. Because in the second half of the year it assumes the Presidency of the European Union for the first time. An EU Presidency is a major undertaking and represents a huge pressure to any country. The UK has made clear to Cyprus its willingness to help in any way possible. We have already welcomed members of Cyprus Presidency team, and individual departments to London to learn from our own experiences of the Presidency and we hope to do more - including offering secondees from UK departments to Cyprus. As their thinking around the Presidency crystallises and they share with us their aspirations, we will be well placed to help Cyprus deliver successes that will benefit the whole of the EU.

So that is a picture of the broad bilateral relationship, but of course the issue that really dominates relations between our two governments is the Cyprus Problem.

Why a settlement matters

For Cypriots

I’m sure you have heard UK Ministers and officials repeat numerous times that we fully support a solution to the Cyprus Problem. Nevertheless, there are those who doubt that commitment and claim that the UK would prefer to see the current situation continue. That is wrong and let me explain why.

Our commitment to a solution is motivated by two reasons. Firstly, because a settlement is so important for the people of Cyprus. Many people living on the island today have never known a united Cyprus. Many people who witnessed the tragic events of Cyprus’s past have died without ever seeing the two communities united. Many people still alive have been unable to trace relatives who are missing or whose whereabouts are unknown. The Turkish Cypriots remain isolated. The island remains divided. The biggest beneficiaries of a settlement would be the people of Cyprus of all communities themselves. A settlement will enable a generation of people to find a way to close a traumatic chapter of their lives.

Reunification would also provide the much needed space for civil society to flourish and for leaders to spend more time helping to find solutions to global issues, and to ensure that the Cypriot people come out of the current global economic downturn well placed to enjoy a prosperous and sustainable future.

For the UK

But secondly, to be quite frank, a settlement is clearly in the national interest of the UK, and in the interests of the European Union and the wider international community. A reunified Cyprus will bring greater stability to its region and allow the island to fully benefit from its role in the EU. The UK is a strong supporter of Turkey’s ambitions for EU accession, and a resolution to the Cyprus settlement will remove a significant barrier along this road. Now of course Turkey has a role to play here and we continue to urge Turkey to meet its obligations under the Ankara Protocol and to encourage the leaders of the Turkish Cypriot community to be bold in their negotiations.

For the EU

There is also a broader European issue here - the status quo in Cyprus reflects badly on the reputation of the European Union, and presents obstacles to some of its work, particularly on the Common Security and Defence Policy and the relationship with NATO. A settlement would pave the way to greater EU-NATO cooperation which would have a positive security impact for all concerned and would help ensure the stability of the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean region. Recent events have emphasised just how important this is.

For Wider Security

Indeed a reunited island would be able to participate in the full spectrum international organisations with renewed vigour and we could work together to ensure those organisations reflect the values we all share.

Current state of negotiations

But I am not pretending that reaching a settlement is an easy thing to achieve. If it was the problem might have been solved 30 years ago. I commend President Christofias and Mr Eroglu for the effort they have put in and the progress they’ve made so far- alongside UN Special Advisor Downer, who continues to put all of his energy into this challenging role. Because this is not some theoretical challenge. They are tackling difficult and emotive issues that have a real impact on the lives of the people they represent. Inevitably there have been setbacks - times when the way ahead seemed blocked - but what has impressed me most is the endurance of the process; the ability and willingness of the two sides to persevere in the face of such setbacks and accompanying criticism.

However, despite all of these efforts, there is still some way to go before convergences are reached across all chapters and a package is ready to be put to a vote. UN Secretary General Ban stressed, in his most recent report, that negotiations must not be open-ended and that there should not be, in his words, “interminable talks for the sake of talks”. Now as a politician I am well aware how much more difficult any negotiations are likely to be in a pre-election period. We must all therefore be realistic about what can be achieved in the few weeks remaining before elections in Cyprus and Turkey. What is important is that the negotiations remain in a sufficiently robust and energised form to be ready to move forward rapidly after the elections.

I know it has been said before that we are facing a pivotal moment in the history of the island. That the time is right to make the negotiating breakthrough. In January this year I said it to members of the All Party Parliamentary Group in advance of the leaders’ second meeting with Secretary General Ban in Geneva on the 26th. At that meeting, it was hoped that they could agree a practical plan for overcoming the remaining points of disagreement across all chapters. Unfortunately this did not happen. The Geneva meeting did not deliver the clear strategy we had all hoped for.

Despite this setback, I do not believe that the window of opportunity is now closed shut. Far from it, the cause for a settlement is building momentum and the post election period represents a further chance to make progress. As the Republic takes on the European Union Presidency halfway through next year, President Christofias will be acutely aware that the eyes of the world will be paying even more attention to the island as this milestone approaches. I offer both leaders my personal support, as well as the support of this Government, as they continue their efforts to negotiate a settlement in this important time.

Achieving an agreement will require vision, statesmanship and courage. I have faith in the leaders and their negotiating teams to seize what is a historic opportunity to reunite the island and bring stability and lasting peace to all of its people. Civil society needs to support their efforts and groups such as this Association have a role to play. There is little prospect of a durable settlement if the two communities are not mixing and working together; creating a positive environment for the talks. The Cyprus Problem is about more than UN resolutions. It’s about people. A bizonal, bicommunal federation won’t succeed if people aren’t prepared to make it work.

So, I am a firm supporter of the efforts to reach a settlement and I am looking forward to visiting the island in June to discuss these important issues. I intend to meet with and talk to political leaders and others in Cyprus who look forward to the day that the island is reunified for the benefit of all its people.

I’ll be listening carefully to what the people of Cyprus have to say to me and I will tell them what I have told you: that the UK strongly supports the UN’s efforts to achieve a settlement based on a bizonal, bicommunal federation with political equality, as defined by the relevant Security Council resolutions. We are committed to a settlement by Cypriots for Cypriots which will deliver a stable, prosperous and united island, operating as a valued partner within the EU. And we support that because we believe ultimately it is what the people of Cyprus want.

Thank you all for listening, and I welcome your questions.