Last October, as vice-chair, I led a delegation from Friends of Cyprus to the island. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Member’s Interests in relation to the costs of the visit.
The debate on Cyprus seems to have become an annual event—recently under your chairmanship, too, Mr. O’Hara. I know that you take a particular interest in the matter. Regrettably, over the past year, there has not been a great deal of progress. When we were in Cyprus, it was clear that the Greek Cypriot view is that the world has forgotten the basic cause of the problem: the injustices of invasion, occupation, Turkish troops and settlers and development of their property. The Greek Cypriots feel disappointed by the lack of progress since Mr. Mehmet Ali Talat became President of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Many Turkish Cypriots would privately agree about that, which is shown by the slipping of electoral support for the Republican Turkish party—the CTP—and apparent growing division within the CTP.
The focus in the north and for Turkey is on upgrading their status, consequent to the EU process. The Republic of Cyprus will not agree to delegations seeing TRNC leaders in their offices, as that is seen as supporting that upgrade, but Mr. Talat and others will now only see visitors in their offices. That reduces the prospect for visitors to get both sides’ views and to debate and test those views with the other side’s leaders.
After the failure of the Annan plan, rather than reaching out to the Greek Cypriots to reassure and engage with referendum “no” voters, who will have to be won round to support any future settlement plan, the Turkish Cypriot leadership only harks back to its community’s “yes” vote and the injustice that it perceives of its continued isolation, which is seen as a breach of faith by the international community. That has the effect of alleviating pressure on Turkey, which supported a referendum “yes” vote, and of turning Turkish Cypriot and international disapproval on to the Republic’s leadership and especially President Papadopoulos.
The demonising of the President is counter-productive and drives the communities further apart. Attacks should be directed at policies, rather than personalities, and Mr. Talat should not be encouraged to see such attacks as acceptable by the attitudes of some in the EU. Having the CTP in government in the north has relieved Turkish Cypriot political pressure on Turkey, as there was no one left to organise it. As one of the prime movers of the former common vision movement said to me, “We’re back to square one.”
Questions have to be raised about whether the CTP Administration is slipping back into the old ways and failing to reflect Turkish Cypriot opinion to Turkey, as they were elected to do. The Administration in the north believes that they have international support and can achieve much of what they want through that. We were told that that was now debated as “Eurotaksim”, or partition through Europe. In the south, the Turkish EU accession process is seen as leverage. Both sides are regrettably playing it long.
Time is objectively not on the side of settlement. Facts are being created on the ground in the north, with building on Greek Cypriot land—a negative by-product of the failure of the Annan plan—and the increase in the population from Turkey. Although the green line has been opened, resulting in 15 million crossings and the removal of the physical barriers to trade and movement, so—inexorably, given the present climate—a green line of the mind is being erected to replace it, with reducing meaningful bi-communal contact at every level. Although personal friendships across the divide can be maintained, that does not read through politically.
We heard that recent polls—one has to be sceptical, sometimes, about polls in Cyprus—showed that a majority on both sides wanted division. That runs a risk of coming not with a bang but a whimper, and there is a growing risk that such an outcome will become inevitable through default and neglect.
The UN initiative is led on the island by the self-styled “optimist on duty”, Michael Moller, who has made clear that there is no UN plan B. Since the leaders of the two communities were brought together by UN Under-Secretary-General Gambari in July 2006, the agreements that were then reached have dissolved in the face of disputes about how to take the process forward, and talks about talks have assumed an identity of their own. On 15 November, Mr. Gambari wrote to both leaders to set out proposals that were formally accepted by both sides on 18 November.
Kofi Annan, in his 1 December Security Council report on Cyprus, said:
“The stage is therefore now set for positive forward movement”.
He urged both parties to show good will and determination to overcome deep mental distrust and suspicions, and he hoped that the blame game would be stopped. Whether the new Secretary-General will embark on a good offices initiative will depend on progress. In response, there was a welcome announcement on 28 December by Turkish Cypriot leader Mr. Talat that the bridge will be immediately removed, so that the Ledra street crossing point can be opened. I believe that demolition started yesterday, despite objections from the military.
Although there are protestations of no linkage on both sides of the green line, in practice that is unavoidable when one considers the position on the Cyprus issue and on Turkish accession to Europe. Turkey certainly sees a link, as was seen at the review of its accession process at the December European Council and its failure to open its ports, airports and airspace to the Republic of Cyprus, even though it previously undertook to open them.
The embargo is far wider than most appreciate and affects not just Cyprus, but the whole EU, as it applies to any ship or aircraft with the remotest connection with the south. A recent absurdity concerned the wish of the Italian chief of staff, who had arrived in Cyprus after inspecting troops in the Lebanon, to fly direct in an Italian plane to Afghanistan from Larnaca across Turkey. The Turks refused permission, so he had to return to Rome before he could fly across Turkey to Afghanistan.
Turkish general elections are due by 4 November, and the presidential election, in which Mr. Erdogan may be a candidate, is due before May this year, so the profile of EU accession and the stand-off over Cyprus assumes an added importance. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has toughened his position. His public pronouncements that Turkey’s ports will not be opened match his private discussions—megaphone diplomacy, if I may say so, without the diplomacy.
Equally, the Republic’s single-minded concentration on Turkey fulfilling the legal obligations of the customs union overlooks the fact that Turkey simply will not recognise the Republic of Cyprus, as administered by Greek Cypriots since 1964. The embargo on the Republic has implications across Europe. As Cyprus has the second biggest fleet in Europe—the 10th biggest in the world—and given that Limassol is a key shipping centre alongside London and Athens, the ban must inevitably affect the cost of shipping rates, reducing available supply.
One commentator suggested in the Financial Times on 19 December that the biggest losers are Turkish importers, as freight rates to Turkey would be significantly lower if Cyprus-flagged ships had access to Turkish ports. That issue will become even more important with the recent opening of the BP-operated Caspian oil pipeline from Baku through Turkey to the Mediterranean if tankers from Cyprus continue to be banned from calling.
Turkish Cypriots feel hard done by because of the EU’s failure to honour its pledge, as they see it, to permit direct trade. As is often repeated, including by our own Government, to quote that commitment selectively is a misinterpretation of the EU Council of Ministers’ 2004 decision. Yes, that decision was to end the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots, but it was qualified by emphasising that that was to be considered in the context of moving towards the economic integration of the island, as well as in those of improving contacts between the two communities and with the EU and helping to reunify the island.
Everybody accepts that direct trade is meaningless in economic development terms—it is worth at best 10 million Cypriot pounds—but it has assumed great political importance as a status issue. The Turkish Cypriots believe trade with the EU would upgrade their status, which they see as an important bargaining tool in the wider issue. For the same reasons, that symbolism had led to greater efforts to avoid status recognition of the TRNC by the Republic of Cyprus and thus to its opposition to meetings with Mr. Talat in his office.
There is also a serious question about whether the policy is being advanced by the TRNC with clean hands. We heard of a documented example—we saw the documents—of how the TRNC frustrated a deal worth 1 million Cypriot pounds to export potatoes from the north through Limassol, stating that no Turkish Cypriot goods should go through that port, in clear opposition to the EU green line regulations that were designed to facilitate trade across the line.
There are suggestions, too, that the green line is being illicitly abused to export Turkish—as opposed to Turkish Cypriot—produce into the south, including agricultural produce containing DDT insecticide, which is permitted in Turkey but banned in the EU. In the first half of November, 370,000 kg of onions were brought from the north into the south over the green line—a quantity that could not possibly have all been grown in the north.
Against that background, the Finnish presidency of the EU bravely attempted a compromise proposal that involved the opening of two ports in Turkey. Famagusta port would jointly be administered by Greek and Turkish Cypriots to permit EU trade and Varosha would be returned to UN administration without the right of return. Both sides squared up to reject the proposal straight away. Turkey and the TRNC did so because it did not include Ercan—Tymbou—airport and direct flights to the north, and they condemned it as a rehash of earlier proposals from President Papadopoulos. The Republic of Cyprus did so because it did not provide for the return of refugees to Varosha, nor that Turkey would open all its ports, as it had already agreed to do.
The net result of the EU summit was that the opening and closing of eight chapters were blocked by the European Council; and Cyprus continues to block the closing of seven other chapters. Although the EU is about to propose the opening of new chapters, at least one will be blocked by Cyprus until Turkey properly implements the customs protocol.
On a more positive note, I am pleased to say that the €259 million aid package to the north is being released, and a programme team office established in the north to administer it. However, enthusiasm in Turkey for EU accession appears to be waning. Another problem is that Cyprus failed to persuade the EU to set a fresh deadline for Turkey to meet its obligations, and the Republic will soon come under renewed pressure over direct trade.
All those issues should be taken into consideration before the EC recommends, or the Foreign Ministers meeting in January decides, a further opening of direct links with northern Cyprus, which I believe will inevitably drive prospects for settlement further away. There is no direct link arrangement for ports or airports that will not increase the pressure to develop more Greek Cypriot property. That must await comprehensive settlement.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for the EU to put more pressure on Turkey in relation to its customs union obligations, and that that will be particularly important following the Turkish presidential elections in May?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The feeling, certainly among people in the south of the island, is that the pressure is on them and not on Turkey, despite Turkey’s agreement to the customs union. Indeed, Turkey will have to accept the customs union at some stage, and it might as well do so earlier rather than later. That would provide a key to unlocking many of the problems that we presently see between the communities.
Although cross-green line trade is increasing as a percentage—from north to south up it is up by 53 per cent., and from south to north it is up by 164 per cent.—it does not amount to much in volume, remaining almost negligible. In the autumn, the World Bank published a devastating report on the TRNC economy, predicting economic collapse in the near future. Tourism in the north is failing, due to the sale of holiday homes—former hotel customers who buy property, and their friends who stay with them, do not need hotels—and environmental standards are undermined by development.
The university sector, an important part of the economy of the north, will lose out, as its degrees will not be accredited under the Bologna process. Students will not have access to the EU Erasmus programme, and there is increased competition from Turkey and from southern Europe. The unreformed public services are overstaffed and do not deliver the services, and the huge budget deficit is financed by Turkey.
The cross-green line banking system is badly in need of reform. When the power supply failed in north Nicosia in the summer, the TRNC had to buy electricity from the Republic of Cyprus. The electricity bill was paid, literally, with a truck-load of cash—folding money. Test transfers, via the French bank Société Générale, routed through London, took three days to get from south to north Nicosia, and a further three days to get back.
Reputable banks also have serious concerns over the risk of money laundering, given the outlaw nature of the north’s legal system. I am pleased that the United States is funding experts to work with the banks in the north to try to overcome some of those problems. The better news is that south’s economy remains strong and is on course for euro entry on 1 January 2008, with a fixed exchange rate between the Cyprus pound and the euro in autumn 2007.
I turn to bi-communal activity. When we were there, the political parties across the green line had fallen out in a big way. Not only had sister parties AKEL and CTP effectively suspended political meetings, but CTP had blocked bi-communal party activities, such as the annual joint youth camp, which in 2005 attracted 8,000 people, including 2,000 Turkish Cypriots. CTP young people did not attend this year, although a smaller number of Turkish Cypriots went under their own steam.
CTP and DISY, too, have poorer relations: Mr. Anastasiades, DISY President, used to see Mr. Talat regularly, but they had not met for a year when we saw him last October. Some events have proceeded at a local level, with CTP people defying the leadership. Recently, the Famagusta CTP invited Mr. Christofias, president of the House of Representatives, and other AKEL members to a successful and well-attended dinner, at which Mr. Ferdi Soyer was present. The Ozker Ozgur peace and democracy foundation was launched at a bi-communal memorial event in north Nicosia on 22 November, which was attended by many Greek Cypriots.
There have been problems at the green line checkpoints. Turkish Cypriots have had their papers searched and copied, which they regard as an intrusion. The Greek Cypriots may be looking for architectural plans and estate agent paraphernalia, presumably to stop the marketing of occupied Greek Cypriot land to tourists in the south. That, too, is understandable, but it needs to be better communicated.
In his report to the United Nations Security Council, the Secretary-General referred to a serious incident on 22 November, when a group of Turkish Cypriot students at an English language college in Nicosia were attacked by masked Greek Cypriot students from outside the school. Three were arrested, and the attacks were strongly condemned by President Papadopoulos. Greek Cypriots, particularly activists, also suffer delay, harassment and meaningless searches when they go north, as I witnessed myself when crossing the line with one of them. I also saw the new development in Morphou, the neglect of older buildings and, most serious, the desecration of cemeteries and church buildings in the occupied town.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. Does he believe that the Foreign Office should strengthen its advice to British holiday makers not to buy property in northern Cyprus because much of it has been seized from its rightful owners?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. The Foreign Office strengthens its advice from time to time, but in the light of the Orams case to which I hope to refer shortly it could be made stronger still.
There generally seems to be far less formal bi-communal activity. That is the product both of the breakdown of trust and of attacks within each community on those who work bi-communally. Although good relationships continue at a personal level—as evidenced by a Greek Cypriot crossing back south, who gave us a lift after meeting a Turkish-Cypriot chess-playing friend to plan a joint birthday party for their wives—it does not translate into a political benefit, but indicates the desire for a settlement on an individual basis.
That is not to say that there are no bi-communal activities. We found a most interesting history project that is trying to bring to schools an understanding of shared experience. It is planning to renovate a building in the buffer zone for seminars, a library, exhibitions, meetings and receptions, as well as working on its primary project, which is historical research and dialogue. It needs financial support; perhaps the Government would consider helping it.
The bi-communal choir has more support than ever, and it has recovered well from difficulties after the April 2004 referendums. However, there appears to have been a general overall chilling effect, putting a settlement into the deep freeze, as one leading Turkish Cypriot told us.
As for politics in the north, the governing coalition of CTP and the Democratic party ended, and a new coalition formed between CTP and three deserters from the DP and the National Unity party—the UBP. The irony is that the right-wing UBP and DP parties, which had in the past expelled left wingers from their parliament, were now boycotting parliament themselves and protesting outside on the pavement.
There appears to be increasing dissatisfaction with Mr. Talat’s regime. It has not delivered the progress CTP promised, and its popularity is waning. The risk is of a return to right-wing rule, with a majority of settlers in the north, over the Turkish Cypriots. That could lead to a realignment, a settler party, and even the possibility of a referendum for taksim, or partition. Turkish influence is clear. The north is already more Turkish than Turkish Cypriot, but if that scenario turns out to be correct, it will foil completely Turkey’s bid for EU membership and will encourage Turkish Cypriots to claim their land in the south by moving back to the Republic.
As always, a plethora of legal actions impinge on the political process in Cyprus. The most famous recently is the Orams case, in which a Greek Cypriot is trying to enforce through the UK courts a Cypriot judgment against a British couple who bought a property on the Greek Cypriot’s land in the north. The British judge upheld the basic principles of the judgment, but would not enforce it. The case will ultimately go to the European Court of Justice. The Loizidou case is before the European Court of Human Rights for enforcement of earlier debts. The Arestis case concerns Greek Cypriot property in Varosha. The ECHR seems to have ruled on the effectiveness of the local remedy that Turkey put in place to comply with earlier rulings, awarding €800,000 compensation. However, the issue remains one of restitution. The total cost, if only Varosha people were to claim, has been estimated at £5 billion.
The question is whether Turkey has a budget for that, or whether an extra lever might be provided to persuade Turkey to hand back Varosha. The local remedy is the property commission under the TRNC. We were told in the north that 55 Greek Cypriots had applied, and that four of five cases had been decided, including one restitution. Further progress depends on how the Arestis case ruling is interpreted and whether similar sums are awarded. In the meantime, apart from a few dozen urgent cases, 1,500 outstanding European Court of Human Rights cases have been stayed.
The Arif case in the Republic concerned a Turkish Cypriot who moved back south and was resident there. The Republic court ordered restitution, the Greek Cypriot family living in his property were removed and the property was handed back. More Turkish Cypriots who were either resident in the Republic or living overseas before 1974 are now claiming restitution of their property. Turkish Cypriot newspaper editor Sener Levent is bringing a European Court of Human Rights case in relation to his desire to be a candidate in Republic elections. He claims he was discriminated against as he had to fill in a form, which he refused to do as it was not required of Greek Cypriots. On a more positive note, the various prosecutions against him by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the Turkish military have been dropped.
Again, on a more positive note, the UN committee on missing persons is working effectively on a bi-communal basis. Some 184 sites have been identified: 160 in the north containing about 1,000 bodies and 24 in the south containing about 300 to 350 bodies. Bi-communal teams of archaeologists and anthropologists are recording the sites and recovering the bones. The laboratory in the UN buffer zone is on UK land, using a UK building and is functioning bi-communally with Argentinean experts. The job is extremely skilled and involves matching up jumbled piles of bones. I visited the lab and saw the amazing and complicated work that takes place. However, funding is a problem; they need €3 million a year to keep going and uncertainty of the funding means the Argentinean team is only on a two-month rolling contract—we could perhaps do more to help with that.
Demining is proceeding well as a UN project, funded by the EU through the work of a UK-based company. Demining has been completed in the Republic, and buffer zone demining of 13 Turkish mine fields has been completed. The UN now wants to move further afield and the United Nations Peace-Keeping Force in Cyprus is negotiating with the Turkish army to include the remaining mine fields in the buffer zone.
I visited the enclaved Greek Cypriots in the Karpas. The conditions in which they live, the petty restrictions to which they are subjected, and the general intimidation and lack of protection from the law they experience amount to an appalling abuse of human rights. In Rizokarpaso only about 230 people remain and there are not many more in the remainder of the Karpas. Of the 12,000 people who stayed on in 1974 the rest died or gave up in the face of oppression. Those still there are terrified of drawing attention to their condition for fear of victimisation. Indeed, two of the people with whom we spoke were questioned by the police almost immediately after we left.
I have raised the issue of the enclaved people with the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe and I believe we should be doing more to raise this firmly with Turkey as part of its accession process. Near the end of last year, David Hencke, a Guardian reporter, visited the enclaved people and wrote an accurate article for The Guardian fully describing that oppression. Regrettably, that was shelved by the editors because it was seen as too “pro-Greek”. I find it appalling that The Guardian, which should have a good record on human rights, has fallen into the same trap as far too many others. It has overlooked that appalling abuse because it does not fit its political agenda and because the victims are Greek Cypriots and the story does not promote Turkish accession.
My hon. Friend may recall that we had an Adjournment debate in this Hall in the July immediately after the Annan plan failure, when we examined the plan in detail and the reasons for its failure. While Annan III may have secured a majority, Annan V was a step too far for the Greek Cypriots. It is important to look forward rather than look back at why things failed. We need to establish what we need to do to make the plan a success, if possible by building on those foundations.
Does the hon. Gentleman feel that it would be appropriate at some stage, and if so when, for Ban Ki-moon to come forward with a further plan following the failure of Annan V, or does he think there will not be a further plan in the foreseeable future?
If the new Secretary-General is to embark on a good offices process, we need some meat on the bones of the structures set up through the committees, which were established as a consequence of the Gambari process that started in July and was reaffirmed by an exchange of correspondence in November. Whether that process develops remains to be seen, but there has been far too much focus on process and far too little on substance. I hope that we will now see some substance as that could create the climate for a new good offices process.
Prospects as they stand for progress towards a settlement look remote because of the concentration on process rather than substance. The status quo is not fixed and developments work against settlement all the time. There is a breakdown of meaningful bi-communal contact; indeed, it is apparently deliberately frustrated in some quarters, especially in the north. There is a failure to develop green line trade, which is deliberately discouraged in official Turkish Cypriot circles. Official statements by spokesmen have also contributed to a sense of drifting apart. People are policed by their own propaganda rather than by empathy for suffering or shared concerns.
The Turkish Cypriots are living in an unreal economy that is unsustainable. Demography and political failure in the north create a high risk of return to the old nationalist politics of the Denktash era, with the former opposition failing to make progress in government. It is clear that the TRNC has little room for independent movement and its actions and decisions are, as ever, dominated by Turkey, particularly the Turkish military, and support from Turkey is essential for the economy. Building on Greek Cypriot land and the immigration of Turks from Turkey continues.
Turkey's EU accession process, which is the key to making progress in Cyprus, is in trouble despite the brave face put on the outcome in December. Partition seems more likely than a settlement, and would be based on the bi-communal, bi-zonal federation principle theoretically accepted by both sides. I hope that the Gambari initiative will produce substantive progress, but that may be the triumph of hope over experience.
Confidence-building measures on missing persons and demining are progressing well, but need longer-term funding. However, the problem of respect for human rights remains, especially for the Karpas enclaved in the north. Even journalism has taken sides rather than informing and judging according to the standards expected of Turkey and Cyprus, and by anyone committed to human rights and the rule of law.
My hon. Friend mentioned the positive role that the Finnish presidency had played in moving things forward. That has been replaced by the German presidency and there has been some concern about the attitude of the Germans in relation not just to Cyprus, but to Turkey’s accession negotiations. Does my hon. Friend think that the Germans can play a positive role in carrying on the good work of the Finnish presidency?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. As I mentioned earlier, although technically the processes of EU accession and the resolution of the Cyprus issue are not linked, in practice they inextricably are. I hope that the German presidency will try to play a positive role although, as I think was mentioned in a previous intervention, the prospects of any real progress are probably slim, particularly as there are elections in Turkey over the next year. As I have maintained throughout my contribution, time is running out and is not in favour of a settlement.
Unless the process moves on to substance rather than silencing or marginalising those attempting to make things work, the majority of Cypriots who want a settlement will find the chances of that slipping away. The future does not look very positive for a reunited island unless Cypriots can find a way to talk about the common ground they clearly possess, which is demonstrated whenever they have a chance to co-operate. The international community must accept its responsibility for encouraging the belief, wittingly or unwittingly, both on the island and in Turkey, that they can continue as they are without it resulting in permanent division. The international community must help to bring the parties together, including Turkey, to find that substantive common ground necessary for reunification of the island.
I place on record an interest that is in the Register of Members’ Interests.
One issue that my hon. Friend has not mentioned is that of public opinion in the Republic about the bases that the UK has in the Republic of Cyprus. Have his visits to Cyprus and his discussions on the subject enabled him to form any view of that public opinion and whether it has changed over the years?
In relation to bases, public opinion in Cyprus seems to vary depending on people’s view of the British Government. Whenever we are not particularly popular in the south of the island the issue of British bases comes to the fore and when things are going well it is less of an issue. It was important that even though the Annan process was unsuccessful it included an offer from the British Government to give back a significant proportion of the land that we do not need and that forms part of those bases. That should help to facilitate the land transfers and arrangements within the Annan plan.
I certainly think that if Turkey is to join the EU, it must inevitably recognise all member states. Equally, however, we must recognise that there is no prospect whatever of Turkey recognising Cyprus given the political situation on the island as presently constituted. That is why the solution to the Cyprus issue is fundamental for Cyprus, Turkey and the EU as a whole.
I have been going on for a while, and other people will want to speak, so I finish by saying that the international community has a key role to play in creating the common ground necessary for the reunification of the island.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing the debate so early in the new year and so soon after the appointment of Georgios Iacovou as the new high commissioner to London. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would wish to welcome Mr. Iacovou to his post, and I had the opportunity to do so formally in Margate at the blessing of the seas on Sunday. We should place on record our appreciation for the work that he has done and for the work that we hope he will do.
The hon. Gentleman’s grasp of Cypriot politics is arguably second to none in either House of Parliament, and he also has a grasp of the legal issues, so I do not propose to go over the same ground. Instead, I want to put a human face on the issue, and I can almost hear the groans coming from one quarter as I mention the name of George Geroletiou. He is well known to colleagues who take an interest in Cyprus affairs. Indeed, that is literally true, because he is a personal friend in many cases. He also happens to be one of my constituents, although the Minister probably does not know him.
George is British. He was born in January 1913, so he is 94 this month. He was born in Komi Kebir, which was quite a thriving town close to the Karpas, but which is now almost a ghost village. He was born in a house in which his father and his grandfather had lived before him. He emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1935 to work and seek his fortune, and he did well. He joined the Royal Air Force at the start of the second world war and served in it for four and a half years. For part of that time, he served with Glafcos Clerides, the former and distinguished President of the Republic of Cyprus. He served in India, Burma and Ceylon—he was not sitting on his backside in pretty places. As a citizen of the United Kingdom, he served this country and put his life on the line, as so many people, including former President Clerides, did at that time.
In 1970, long after the war, and having concluded a successful business career, George Geroletiou and his British wife, Ivy, decided to live back in Cyprus, the land of George’s birth. They built a villa outside Famagusta, in a hamlet called Tricomo, right on the coast. It was a beautiful place in a beautiful location, with a view over the sea. The villa was completed in 1970, and George and Ivy spent two winters in their home before moving there for what they thought would be the whole of their retirement. They hoped to see their family—their children and their grandchildren—enjoy the property.
By 1974, Tricomo was on the Turkish side of the green line, and George Geroletiou’s property had been appropriated by the Turks. He did not go back until relatively recently. He came to see me in the Central Lobby in 1983, shortly after I was elected to the House. He asked me to use my good offices as his Member of Parliament to get him back his home, or what he and Ivy had come to regard as their home. For 23 years, I have been trying to do just that, with a signal lack of success, I have to say. I do not want to point too many fingers, however, because there have been failures on the part of successive Governments. I am as deeply ashamed of the lack of progress made by the Conservative Governments of the 1980s and 1990s as I am of that made by the current Government.
George is 94. He was hospitalised last summer, although, happily, he has made a recovery. I told him that he has to go on for two reasons. First, I want him to get his telegram from the Queen. Secondly, he has damn well got to stay alive until he gets his property back, however long that takes—and he could become the oldest citizen in the country if we have to wait too much longer. What he cannot understand, however, is why his country—the country for which he fought and in which he worked and paid taxes—is prepared to do so little to help him get back his stolen home.
A couple of years ago, after the green line was opened, George and I went up to Komi Kebir and saw the place of his birth. It was a pretty little cottage, which is now occupied by a Turkish Cypriot lady of advancing years. She actually remembered George just before he left Cyprus in 1935. She invited us in, and we sat down and had coffee with her. I did not understand a word that they were saying, but they jabbered away for yonks in a Cypriot dialect that was part Greek and part Turkish. Of course, that is the kind of relationship that exists between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots when they are allowed to get on with their own lives, although, in the main, they are not allowed to do so now, at least in Cyprus.
From Komi Kebir, George and I went down to Tricomo and saw his villa, although we were not allowed into it. It was “owned” by a Turk, and there was a Turkish name by the little post-box slotted into the gates. A bulldozer was digging a swimming pool in George Geroletiou’s garden for the illegal Turkish occupant’s use. Imagine how that old man felt. Imagine how he and others living and working in this country feel about our Government.
I have to tell the Minister, however, that it gets even worse than that. Following the referendum, in which the Cypriots dared to say no, as was their complete democratic right, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom went to Ankara and condemned the Republic of Cyprus in terms for daring to vote no. That referendum was largely constructed by the now Lord Hannay, who, as far as I can see, has been ennobled for his failure. It was impossible for Cypriots who understood the future of Cyprus to vote yes, because the referendum, which was held under Annan V, the plan to which hon. Members referred, did not deal with the three key issues.
The plan did not deal with the settlers, illegal immigrants and Anatolian Turks whom Turkey dumped in the north of Cyprus. That has now resulted in the literal exclusion of Turkish Cypriots, who have left their island in droves. There is a myth that such movements are just a Greek Cypriot problem, but they are also a Turkish Cypriot problem. Those of us who have been to the island understand only too well that a generation of settler children have grown up on the island and regard themselves as Cypriot. As Cyprus is the only home that they have ever known, they have to be regarded as Cypriot, but that has compounded the problem.
Nor did the referendum deal with the issues of armed forces of occupation in the north. It said that there would be a phased scaling down of Turkish troops in the northern part of the island and that a token presence would be ultimately left. Would the United Kingdom, having fought the war in the Falklands, seriously have tolerated a token Argentine force on the islands, on British territory? Of course it would not. If soldiers from another country wish to come to the United Kingdom at our invitation and train and work here and mix with our own servicemen and women, that is their business—at our invitation, but not imposed.
The second key issue was not dealt with in Annan V. The third issue—the one that I have spent rather too much time dwelling on—is property, and that was not dealt with either. There was no solution to what Cypriots—Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots—regard as one of the key problems.
When George Geroletiou and I went through the green line up to see his home, we passed scores—hundreds—of little boxes. They were white concrete “Stop me and buy one” villas, most of which had the names of British businesses outside them as marketing agencies and very many of which have been acquired by citizens of the United Kingdom—many living in this country—as holiday homes. The hon. Member for Hendon pointed out that that has done no good at all for the tourism industry in the north of Cyprus, because all the people who were going and staying in hotels are now going and living in their villas, and they expect to be able to go on doing so for a very long time.
That has compounded the settlement problem, because now those people have to be dealt with as well. They may have been warned by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in small print on a website that it was a bad idea and that they might lose their properties, but no Minister yet has been prepared—although perhaps this Minister will be this afternoon—to stand up and say, “You will lose those properties, so your £10,000, £15,000 or £20,000 is money down the drain—lost, gone—if you buy stolen property. That is what is happening.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that the building boom in the northern part of Cyprus is not only cementing the injustice for those whose properties were seized in the invasion, but could have very significant environmentally damaging consequences for the island?
That is absolutely the case. My hon. Friend talks about cementing the injustice; it is actually concreting it. One of the sadnesses about the southern part of the island is that far too much concrete has been laid. Many small coves, beaches and villages that some of us knew a long time ago have disappeared under development, and precisely the same thing is happening in the north, which is very sad indeed and very bad for the environment.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one issue that has been reported in a confused way in this country is the outcome in the High Court of the Orams case? In so far as it was reported, many of the reports suggested that the High Court judge had found in favour of the Orams, when in fact, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said, he substantiated their case, but the ruling was that courts in this country had no jurisdiction over enforcement of the Orams case.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting and valid point. The media reports at the time exacerbated the situation, because they were almost designed to lead people to believe that they could in effect flout the law—they could go and buy property in the northern part of the island of Cyprus with impunity and they were likely to be able to hang on to that property either for a very long time or, probably, in perpetuity. As he says, that is not the case. I raised the issue at the time publicly and I was quite interested to receive not a huge mailbag, but certainly several letters from British expatriates or potential expatriates who had bought property in the north and were outraged that a British Member of Parliament was daring to criticise what they had done. Frankly, what they had done was just as illegal as walking into Boots the Chemist and shoplifting. They are dealing in stolen property. That is what it is.
The Government, after the referendum, sent a terrible message through the mouth of the Prime Minister. The relationship between the Republic of Cyprus and the United Kingdom, which had been very good, has been dramatically soured. That is the fault not of the Republic of Cyprus, but of the United Kingdom and its attitude to the result of the referendum. Bridges now have to be built. Since the referendum, there is an impression abroad, which is not ill founded, that somehow the Government of the United Kingdom have been trying to punish the Republic of Cyprus for daring to do what Britain believed that it should not have done, because this country has been in thrall to the American policy over Turkey and once again we are following the United States.
The Americans can do what they like. They have their own interests and agenda for the middle east. We all understand that. It is their business, but with respect, they are not a guarantor power or a member of the Commonwealth. The United Kingdom is, and citizens of the United Kingdom, people who have fought for this country, such as George Geroletiou and many others—some of them, dare I say it, living in highly marginal seats—look to this Government to play square by them and to defend their interests, not the interests of others who are breaking the law.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) for securing the debate. As he said, it is almost an annual event. We have heard a great amount of detail and—I say this with respect—some very emotive detail, but let us not forget that the problem with Cyprus has been on the UN agenda for four decades, and four decades is far too long.
Reference has been made to the Annan V plan, and a number of us felt and hoped that that provided for a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus issue. We felt and hoped that it would provide an historic opportunity to establish a unified state on the island, in compliance with the long-established parameters of the UN. In the simultaneous referendums in 2004, Turkish Cypriots voted in favour of the plan and accepted a new partnership state. Sadly, however, Greek Cypriots rejected the plan with an overwhelming majority. Despite their rejecting the plan and thereby maintaining the divided status of the island, the Greek Cypriots were as a result, one could claim, awarded EU membership.
Is it not the case that had things gone otherwise, we would not need to discuss many of the issues that we are discussing today, because they would have been in the process of resolution? Is not the conundrum that we face that those people who voted positively were punished with isolation and the Greek Cypriots, who voted negatively, were rewarded with EU membership? The situation has reached upside down proportions. Is it not important that we resume, for example, direct links and end the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots? Is that not a fundamental right for the Turkish northern Cypriots?
I could not agree more. Had the result in the referendum been different, we would certainly be in a different position and hopefully we would have been moving forward.
Following the referendums in 2004, EU Foreign Ministers took a decision to ease the restrictions on the Turkish Cypriots. According to that decision, the EU agreed on regulation on financial assistance and on direct trade. In May 2004, the UN Secretary-General published a report of his mission of good offices in Cyprus and clearly stated that the restrictions on the northern part of the island should be lifted.
However, as the Greek Cypriot Administration became a member of the EU, implementation of the EU regulations that I have referred to was blocked by the Greek Cypriots. Two and a half years after the referendums, the Turkish Cypriots, who supported the unification and settlement and thereby gained, one could claim, the moral high ground are still suffering from restrictions due to the Greek Cypriot obstruction in the EU.
The fundamental aim of the Greek Cypriot side is to change the established parameters of the Cyprus issue. They want to stall the UN’s efforts to find a comprehensive settlement and involve the EU in the problem. That is a platform on which Turkey and Turkish Cypriots are not members, and Greece and the Greek Cypriot Administration have a right to veto and chances to manipulate the process in their favour. The Greek Cypriots also appear to be trying to remove the vested rights of Turkish Cypriots and downgrade them to the level of “minority.” Furthermore, Greek Cypriots are trying hard to open a direct negotiation channel with Turkey and push aside the Turkish Cypriot leadership, whom they disregard as a counterpart, yet the Greek Cypriot leadership’s method of finding a comprehensive settlement has always been through the Turkish Cypriot authorities. Turkey and Greece—the motherlands—together with the UK are the guarantor powers who must overlook and participate in the efforts to find a solution.
I welcome my hon. Friend to the debate. He seems to be characterising the Turkish and Turkish Cypriots as good and Greeks and Greek Cypriots as bad. Everyone in the Chamber who takes an interest in Cyprus and the wider issues in the eastern Mediterranean would consider that to be far too superficial an approach. It is of critical importance to have balance if we are to move forward and suggest to Ministers a way to gain the support of both the communities on the island. I suggest that a little more balance would be helpful.
I thank my hon. Friend because I entirely share his view, but I have heard little balance up to now. People on both sides of the argument, and anyone who participates in the debate, should try to take a balanced view. Surely, the ultimate desire of everyone should be to bring about a settlement in Cyprus.
Unless the Greek Cypriot side genuinely wants to find a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem, I am not sure how we will progress. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon mentioned the Turkish Cypriot students who were attacked at the British school in the southern part of the island. That was rightly denigrated by politicians in the south of the island, but the intransigence of the Greek Cypriot Administration breeds and ferments the ultra-nationalistic attitude on the Cypriot issue that exists on both sides to a degree, which does not assist progress.
On 29 December, I was on my way back from a short visit to Israel and Palestine and was at a stopover at Istanbul airport when I was approached by some constituents—something that happens in this job. They said, “Simon, it is very nice to see you. Are you coming to our event on 9 January?” “What event is that?” I asked. They told me that it was the annual new year event of the Cypriot elders centre in Southwark, where Greek and Cypriot people have for years met and enjoyed an extremely good community facility. My constituents had been in Turkey for a meeting about the future of Cyprus.
Yesterday, I went to that evening event and found that both Turkish and Greek Cypriots—like many hon. Members in the Chamber, I represent both—overwhelmingly want peace, settlement and justice in Cyprus. They want the politicians to get their act together, so that they can go back to normal life north or south of what is now the border in the place where they come from. I have never held a brief for one or other side of the argument, but I hold one for the rule of law—as I do in relation to Palestine and Israel.
To me, the rule of law says simply that there was an invasion in 1974. However difficult the times before that were or however much injustice there was, in the end, there was an invasion of one country by another, which caused the division. The northern part of Cyprus has been occupied since then. That is against international law. There cannot be peace when any country holds territory to which it is not entitled in another country. That does not mean that I am against the Turkish Cypriots having their say or that I am against Turkey. We have to reach a balanced, fair resolution in which the troops withdraw and the Cypriots decide their own future.
I add my criticisms to those of my colleagues around the table and say to the Minister that the Government have been very feeble and weak on this issue since the invasion. We were the colonial, empire power and are now the guarantor power—Cyprus is a Commonwealth country—yet we have barely ever sought to drive the process. That is a terrible frustration and indictment. We are also the power with sovereign bases there, so we have a direct interest. Some of my family have lived there, and I have visited them there. We have a huge interest in trying to drive the process towards peace.
There was a referendum after lots of UN work, but I share the view of the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) on that. If a question is put to the people in a referendum and both halves of the island are required to reach a common view, they cannot be criticised if one side says no, but the Government did that completely unjustifiably. Both sides were required to say yes before the proposition could go ahead, but they did not both say yes, so it was not an acceptable proposition—end of story. The Government should then have gone back to work and tried to find an acceptable proposition.
I am conscious that lots of opportunities have come and gone, one of which was Cypriot membership of the EU. The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) said that the Greek Cypriots got membership of the EU as a reward for voting no in the referendum, but that is a complete distortion of the facts. Cyprus joined because it passed the criteria for membership of the EU, and it was rightfully allowed to come in, as Bulgaria and Romania have been this year.
There is another opportunity, which is where the backstop is found. I agree with the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), whom I compliment on his knowledge and congratulate on securing the debate, that the longer this problem goes on, the more difficult it is to heal and the more likely partition is. That is against the interests of the people, who want to go back to the generally happy co-existence and lives that they had before. The one backstop issue is the Turkish application to join the EU. I support the application, but they have to understand that they must abide by the rules and comply with the requirements put on them by the EU. Therefore, they will have to open their ports to the lawfully recognised Cypriot Government and open up trade.
I am a realist and I appreciate that such matters are unlikely to be easy in an election year, but by the end of the year, there will have been both parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey. I request that the ground is laid now with the UN and led by the EU and our Government, so that immediately the Turkish elections are over, there is a serious and determined effort to ensure that the position is resolved. That is not impossible. There are issues to do with housing, land and disappearances, but the will is there among the people if only international pressure and leadership can be given to the politicians. I hope that the UK Government will be slightly more effective in their leadership than they sadly have been in respect of a country of whom we are the guarantor but whose guarantee we have not upheld for the past 33 years.
Thank you for calling me to give the first of the winding-up speeches at the conclusion of this debate, Mr. O’Hara. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing it and on bringing to bear his considerable knowledge on this issue. I am sure that I speak on behalf of all hon. Members when I say that it was interesting to hear his views, insights and expertise on Cyprus.
Those of us who regularly attend foreign affairs debates in this Chamber, some of whom are present, will know that certain issues provoke strong views and opinions, and—dare I say it?—a high attendance. They tend to relate to the parts of the world with the most intractable problems, such as Kashmir, Israel and Palestine, and Cyprus, which is the subject of this debate. Many people bring to bear their own opinion and do not seek to give a rounded or particularly balanced view—rightly, because there is no reason why they should do so.
Such people seek to make the case on behalf of the side of the debate to which they feel more sympathetic. The British Government need to avoid that position, and it is one that I intend to avoid this afternoon, regardless of my personal sympathies. Our country and our Government need to act as an honest broker and to be regarded by both sides—if I may put it in those terms—as being capable of making dispassionate judgments, rather than as being involved in the process to advance the interests of one side at the expense of the other.
I shall break down my comments into three sections. I shall discuss the role that the United Kingdom Government can play, the role that the European Union can play, and the role that the United Nations has played and can continue to play. As has been said by other hon. Members, Britain clearly has a bigger interest and role in Cyprus than any other country, with the exception of Greece and Turkey. We have an historical interest in Cyprus—it was directly under our control until 1960—a diplomatic interest and the strategic interest of British bases, which have been mentioned. Given the unrest that is an ongoing problem in the middle east, the bases take on an even greater significance.
Other hon. Members have made the legitimate criticism that the British Government have, to some extent, allowed this issue in Cyprus to fester and that they have not been sufficiently energetic or proactive—I use a slightly dreaded and made-up word—in their response to the ongoing, perennial problems there. Such a criticism was made by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who said that the Government need to show greater urgency in their approach.
I disagree with the comment made by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) that the European Union ought not to take a particularly active role because Greece and the Greek bit of Cyprus are members of the EU and Turkey and the Turkish part of Cyprus are not. The EU has a significant role to play.
Cyprus is evidently a European issue—it operates within that context—so the onus is on the EU to demonstrate that it can be used as a diplomatic tool to bring pressure to bear to solve problems within it. On many occasions, it singularly failed to do that in respect of the Balkans. We should not have to ask bigger powers in other parts of the world to intervene to solve problems on our own doorstep that we should be able to take a lead in resolving.
I was listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman was saying about the European Union, and I wonder whether he would respond to the following point. I was attracted to an idea proposed many times by the distinguished former Member of Parliament for Foyle, John Hume, who suggested that the EU should perhaps consider setting up a commission for peace and reconciliation. Given the experience of different European countries and the EU in this field, it could harness all its forces and concentrate them within one commission to address the particular issue in Cyprus.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, as the option is well worth exploring. People will have views on who should comprise such a commission. It is often the case with such commissions that the outcome is predictable once the membership of the commission has been determined, and, no doubt, plenty of wrangling would be involved. The United Kingdom has expertise to bring to bear in resolving disputes where two peoples with different persuasions regard a territory as being more rightfully theirs, if I may put it in those terms. I might come back to that briefly.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) rightly said that one lever that the EU had in this respect went when the Greek part of Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, although that does mean that it is around the table, engaged in the process at the meetings and aspires to have membership of the eurozone. I can understand why that might be regarded as a cause for concern by some, including the hon. Member for Derby, North, who have suspicions—if I may put words in his mouth—about the imbalance, as they would see it. However, it is also a potential opportunity for Greece and the Greek Cypriots to be involved in a forum in which the United Kingdom is also actively involved.
May I gently suggest something to my hon. Friend? I might be wrong, but I think that he needs to be a bit careful about this point. I understand that Cyprus as a whole joined the EU, but that the EU rules cannot apply to the north part of it, because that is not under the control of the Cypriot Government. So all of Cyprus, not just part of it, is a member of the EU. That is an important legal point, as he will understand.
Throughout my brief parliamentary career I have always learned things when I have taken interventions from my hon. Friend. That was a valuable and useful clarification, for which I thank him.
The other lever, which exists to this day, is produced by the Turkish aspirations to membership of the EU—a theme that has been touched on in this debate—and the financial assistance that the EU provides to the part of Cyprus in which Turkish Cypriots live. We know that Turkey is an important strategic ally of the United Kingdom, particularly because it is a member of NATO. I have always found that the ability to make concessions or to enter into diplomatic negotiations is compromised by the immediate prospect of an election, but perhaps after the elections in Turkey this year an opportunity will exist, and I urge the Government to grasp it fully.
I am also keen to speak about the United Nations, as it clearly has a role to play. I hope that the Government will push for a revival of the Annan plan or a successor to it. We clearly need to seek a solution that has a process of checks and balances, so that no side feels that it is being unfairly treated. There need to be balances, and security needs to be given to people on an ongoing basis. The hard bit is always that such processes will require give and take, and that comes back to the intervention made by the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis).
It is legitimate to ask why the Greek Cypriots so overwhelmingly rejected the option that was put before them. Rather than condemning them or understanding them, as different people would seek to do, it is right to ask what were the reasons for their decision, which of them were legitimate and how they can be accommodated. Any successor to the Annan plan will need to accommodate and take on board the points made about troops. Any peaceful solution requires a degree of flexibility. That is the lesson that many would draw from Northern Ireland, and I think that people need to draw it more widely in this case.
The point has been made that people in most parts of the world have fairly simple and not particularly political aspirations: they want to get on, get a job and provide for their family. Everyone in this debate understands that there are keenly felt views on all sides, but the political process owes the residents and inhabitants of Cyprus an obligation to ensure that they can improve their quality of living in a peaceful and stable environment. Britain, the EU and the UN all have a leading role to play.
It is a pleasure to take part in such a good debate. I join other Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing it and on the knowledgeable way in which he opened it. There have been some excellent contributions, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who gave a moving personal insight into some of the tragedies that occur when an island such as Cyprus is divided as it has been. It is also a pleasure once again to follow the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne). True to his diplomatic lineage, he teasingly alluded to the fact that he has personal sympathies, but left us hanging, wondering what they might be.
The debate is timely, because the important and difficult issue of Cyprus is in danger of slipping down the order of priorities. The hon. Gentleman’s securing of the debate gives us a chance to reinforce its importance and to remind the Minister and the Government, gently, of the importance that hon. Members attach to seeking a resolution. There is an apparent state of deadlock that is really quite frustrating. There was palpable frustration in the opening speech, similar to that which many people in Cyprus feel about the lack of movement and about the difficulty that can sometimes now exist in seeing a possibility of movement.
The opportunity for discussion about Cyprus is particularly welcome when so many other pressing international issues could easily divert our attention. It is also well timed in view of the arrival of a new Secretary-General at the United Nations, which the hon. Member for Taunton mentioned. Kofi Annan clearly had very great experience in dealing with Cyprus, and he invested a huge amount of personal energy into seeking a settlement. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the Government will do everything possible to ensure that his successor picks up that baton with the same degree of determination for progress.
As my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, Cyprus is a particular problem for the United Kingdom, both as a guarantor power and as a Commonwealth partner of Cyprus within the European Union. That is a special status that applies only to Cyprus, Malta and the United Kingdom, and it should give us cause and opportunity to exercise influence.
The Opposition are in broad agreement with the Government’s objectives and efforts for progress. We share their desire to see a settlement that enjoys the consent of both communities, which is the only kind of settlement that can work. We want Cyrpus reunited, and as a step on the way to that elusive goal we want warm and positive relationships in trade and free movement to be established and improved for the Cypriot people.
From time to time the Opposition have differed from the Government in style and emphasis. We took the view, as mentioned by my hon. Friend, that it was counter-productive for the British Government to criticise the electorate of the Republic of Cyprus for voting against the Annan plan. We also questioned whether more progress might have been possible before the opening of the Turkish accession negotiations during the British presidency. To the extent that there has been a loss of trust in the relationship between the British and Cypriot Governments, we think that that will make progress harder. However, we share a common purpose, and we wish the Government well in their efforts.
As has been said, a resolution to the problems of Cyprus is increasingly tied up with the whole question of Turkish membership of the EU and the debate on that. However, it is essential that such a resolution should not become contingent on Turkish accession, and it must not wait for eventual Turkish accession. There must be no linkage in the timetable. Nevertheless, there is no question that the process of movement towards accession provides a crucial opportunity for applying pressure and encouragement for settlement. Before Christmas, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister were clear in their view that the suspension of eight chapters of the accession negotiations for Turkey was too severe a penalty, and we wholeheartedly endorse that view. I particularly look forward to the Minister’s comments—I want to leave time for him to make them—on how that process can be brought back on track in the context of the Cyprus question.
I am sure that the Minister will also agree that it would be particularly unwelcome if those EU member states that are antagonistic to Turkey were allowed to exploit the Cyprus question as a means of blocking accession talks. In that context I hope that the Minister’s winding-up speech will include an assessment of what can be done to work towards lifting the suspension of the negotiations on certain chapters, and of the timetable for that. Given that Germany, in particular, is less than enthusiastic—I think that that is a fair view of its position—about Turkish membership, will he also say whether there are any prospects for priority to be accorded to such related matters by the Germany EU presidency?
Along with the hardening of attitudes in Cyprus, one of the least helpful things that could happen would be for Turkey’s experiences in relation to Cyprus and to accession to cause it to turn away from accession. The 19 December issue of the Financial Times reported, I believe, that Turkish support for EU membership had already fallen by that point from 75 to 50 per cent., largely because of the experiences of the last year. I hope that the Minister will be able to give hope in that regard.
Many of the problems are difficult and complex diplomatic issues. Some, however, can be addressed at a more local and human level. I hope that the Minister will focus not only on the big and apparently intractable diplomatic issues, but on the smaller ways in which we might be able to help to build relationships between communities across the green line.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss Cyprus and the points raised, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing the debate. The Government have always supported efforts to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement in Cyprus, and I am sure that the Chamber will agree that the search for a settlement must remain a priority for the Government. Cyprus matters to the United Kingdom. That is why we worked so hard to achieve EU membership for Cyprus—a point too often overlooked—and why we want to work closely with Cyprus to develop a new relationship with it as an EU partner.
After more than three decades of efforts to find a solution, it is a matter of great regret that the island remains divided. The communities on the island, and indeed the stability of the region and the international community as a whole, continue to suffer as a result. We firmly believe that every effort must be made to achieve a comprehensive settlement. As my hon. Friend said, however, time is not on our side, and that has been illustrated by many of the points made. The longer the current division continues, the more intractable the problems become.
My hon. Friend raised in particular the concerns of Greek Cypriots about the continuing situation in the north of the island. Property, the presence of Turkish troops and the number of Turkish nationals living in the north are a matter of great concern for all who take an interest in Cyprus. Unfortunately, those are at the heart of the Cyprus problem and they underline the urgent need to achieve a settlement.
The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) raised the extent to which the Foreign Office has sought to discourage British citizens from buying property in the north. Through our travel advice, our website and in responses to specific queries, the Government have explained fully that property issues are closely linked with the political situation on the island, and that there is a clear risk of purchasers facing legal proceedings in the courts of the Republic of Cyprus. The Foreign Office updated its advice in December to reflect the more rigorous implementation of existing legislation by the Greek Cypriot authorities. We have set out clearly the potential consequences for those contemplating purchases.
It has been more than two years since the failed referendums on the island. Enough time has passed to take stock of the lessons learned and it is time to look forward again. I expect both communities to engage with the relaunched UN process and to agree on both the technical and the substantive issues in order to find a solution. The messages from the international community are clear: we all want early substantive progress. In the past year there have been encouraging developments on the path towards a resumption of settlement negotiations and some causes for concern, which hon. Members raised.
The Government welcomed the EU’s historic decision on 3 October 2005 to open accession negotiations with Turkey. The strategic case for Turkish accession is well recognised throughout the House, and the decision to open negotiations was of great significance for the United Kingdom, the EU, including Cyprus, and Turkey.
The past year—2006—was more difficult for Turkey’s accession negotiations, but I am pleased that all EU member states agreed last month that negotiations should continue. At the same time, the Council’s decision not to open negotiations on eight chapters makes it clear that Turkey must abide by its obligations on opening its ports to vessels from all EU countries, including those from the Republic of Cyprus.
Despite perceptions to the contrary, the UK’s support for Turkish accession to the EU does not come at the cost of sidelining excellent relations with the Republic of Cyprus. Steady progress in Turkey’s accession process will encourage normalisation of relations between Turkey and Cyprus, which should, in turn, help to increase trust and interaction between the parties and to provide a better context for a resumption of negotiations.
A significant achievement in 2006 was the approval of the financial aid regulation for northern Cyprus by EU member states. That €259 million package represents one of the highest levels of EU aid per capita anywhere. The money will be used to fund practical projects, developed in partnership with the Turkish Cypriot community, which should improve the quality of life for ordinary Turkish Cypriots. However, we recognise that aid alone will not be enough to lift the isolation of the Turkish Cypriot community and fulfil the commitments made by EU Foreign Ministers in April 2004. For that reason, we shall continue to support the efforts of the Commission and the German presidency to agree a direct trade regulation, and we hope that progress will be achieved in 2007. We also expect all political and practical obstacles to trade across the green line to be removed to allow full use of the existing regulation governing trade. Our aim should be to increase economic integration on the island and the convergence of the north of Cyprus towards full involvement in the European Union.
The more that Turkish Cypriots are left isolated by the international community, the more the elements in the north of Cyprus that oppose a just and lasting Cyprus settlement will flourish. We must not allow that to happen.
It certainly would end the isolation, at least in part, but there are clear international rules and law governing direct flights. It is important that the United Kingdom Government consider the legal position carefully. So far, we have concluded that it would not be possible to authorise direct flights in the absence of agreement by the Government of the Republic of Cyprus. That remains our legal opinion and legal view. It is clearly important that the United Kingdom Government do not transgress international law in any way.
The UK-Cyprus relationship is a priority for the Government. It has been argued, rightly in my opinion, that it was the absolute determination of the former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who worked tirelessly to overcome the concerns of other member states, that secured Cyprus membership of the European Union. Many senior figures in the Government continue to take a close interest in developments on the island, most prominently my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. We are, therefore, making every effort to work with the Republic of Cyprus to build a broader base of bilateral co-operation across a range of issues of common interest, as well as on the question of a Cyprus settlement.
The structured dialogue between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Cyprus, which is now in its second year, has resulted in co-operation and exchange of information on a variety of issues ranging from football hooliganism to counter-terrorism, and has included a number of high-level visits. Most recently, Cypriot and British officials met to discuss best practice in urban planning, and we expect future exchanges on civil service reform. The broad range of issues encompassed by the structured dialogue illustrates the depth, breadth and fundamental importance of our bilateral relationship with Cyprus. I am also encouraged by the engagement of both communities in the work of the UN Committee on Missing Persons. That bi-communal project is expected to present its first findings to the families of the missing early this year. Unfortunately, the committee is an exception in a worrying decline in bi-communal civic relations. That trend must be reversed because, without strong contributions from civil society, the two sides are unlikely to reach a comprehensive and lasting settlement.
There is much work to be done to foster trust and good relations to bring the two communities closer together. We will continue to encourage interaction at all levels of society through the UK Government, the EU, non-governmental organisations and UN-funded projects, but above all, as hon. Members have indicated, the impetus must come from the leaders of both communities. They must demonstrate their readiness to engage with the United Nations and with each other in the search for a solution.
Since taking over his job, has the Minister given any thought to our Government seeking to convene a meeting with the Turkish Government and the Greek Government—the three guarantor powers—to see whether they can find a proposal that they believe would be acceptable to the communities in Cyprus?
It is no secret that I have spent a considerable amount of time during the past few months talking with political leaders in Greece and Turkey and on the island. Those efforts are continuing and form part of a wider context, which I am outlining. There is no lack of effort by the British Government in trying to secure a just and lasting settlement.
An important development was the meeting between UN Under-Secretary-General Ibrahim Gambari and the two leaders on 8 July, when they agreed a set of principles and decisions. That, along with the leaders’ subsequent agreement to the proposals set out in Mr. Gambari’s letter of 15 November, provides a new opportunity for the resumption of fully fledged settlement negotiations. Whether the path to that settlement is long or short—obviously, we hope that it will be the latter—the settlement will be determined by the willingness of the parties to engage purposefully with the UN and each other. We will support that process in whatever way we can to achieve the ultimate goal of a reunified Cyprus within the EU and of peace and stability in the eastern Mediterranean region.
We talked about confidence-building measures, and the Minister referred to them. Although there was some negative reaction, the measures suggested by the Finnish presidency at the end of last year were generally welcomed by the international community. What discussions has the Minister had with the new German presidency to carry on the good work that the Finnish presidency was doing in trying to build confidence on the island?
Again, as a member of the European Union with a significant interest in Cyprus, we were closely involved with our Finnish colleagues in trying to find a way through the various issues without linking a settlement in Cyprus directly to the requirements of European law. The Council’s decision was practical and sensible, and it indicated the European Union’s concern about the failure of Turkey to implement European law while allowing the negotiations to continue in all but eight chapters. That is a practical solution to the problem and means that we have the opportunity to move forward. It will continue to be discussed but, as hon. Members said, a breathing space was required and the decision in December allowed for that. I hope that that breathing space can be used to maximum advantage in Ankara and the UN process. As the outgoing UN Secretary- General said, it is important to recognise that both sides must show the political will and flexibility to bridge the gap between words and deeds, and to implement the 8 July agreement without delay. Whether a comprehensive settlement can ultimately be reached rests with the leaders of both communities. I recognise the absolute determination of the people of the island to achieve a settlement, but it is important that both sides are prepared to recognise that they must both move to allow that settlement to occur.