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Volume 486: debated on Thursday 15 January 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Blizzard.)

We move from one long-standing international problem to another: Cyprus. First, I should declare my interest: I visited Cyprus at the end of November and in early December, when some of my expenses were met by the Cyprus House of Representatives. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe is about to visit Cyprus next month, so I hope that today’s discussion will help to inform her visit.

Almost a year ago, the Republic of Cyprus elected a new President, President Christofias of AKEL. That was probably a surprise to many, but it was also a pleasant one to many. Two thirds of Greek Cypriots voted for one of the two pro-solution candidates in those elections, and that sends a powerful message that Greek Cypriots, as well as Turkish Cypriots, want a solution. Before I go into the detail of my remarks, I should pay tribute to the late President, Tassos Papadopoulos, who died on 15 December. Although we in the UK may have had fundamental disagreements with him, I think we would all recognise that he always had the best interests of his country at heart. He was a key figure in Cyprus’s struggle against colonialism in the 1950s, the youngest Minister in the Makarios Government in the 1960s and a President who was elected for one term, but who achieved a great deal in bringing Cyprus’s membership of the European Union forward and, indeed, its membership of the euro.

President Christofias’s election means that for the first time the leaderships on both sides of the green line are committed to finding a solution—Mr. Talat is the Turkish Cypriot leader. Both they and their respective parties—AKEL and the CTP—have a long association. On 21 March 2008, Mr. Christofias mounted a new initiative, launching a preparatory phase of a new dialogue with the Turkish Cypriots. On 25 July, the decision was made to translate that into fully-fledged negotiations, and on 3 September the two leaders began face-to-face talks, meeting on an almost weekly basis. This year, they have met on 5 and 12 January, and are due to meet again tomorrow. Despite ups and downs, the atmosphere is a constructive one. The issues have been divided into six chapters: governance and power sharing; property; the EU; the economy; territory; and security. Each of those is then subdivided, with United Nations assistance, into one of three categories: agreed issues; those close to agreement to be decided by the negotiators—Ozdil Nami for the Turkish Cypriots and George Iacovou for the Greek Cypriots; and those that cannot be agreed as yet. I regret to say that far too many are in the latter two baskets, rather than in the first.

On 5 January, agreement was reached on harmonisation and co-operation between the proposed federal Government of constituent states, and Friday’s will be the last discussions on that first chapter. The next discussions will address property issues—one of the most difficult and intractable questions on the island. Progress remains slow overall. On 14 January, Mr. Christofias said that

“despite our intensive efforts, after four months’ work…I do not have real progress to report…A number of secondary issues have been agreed but”—


“remain, however, significant differences of approach.”

Nevertheless, he has expressed confidence that a result can be achieved, there are no artificial deadlines to the process and neither side wishes to walk out of the negotiations. However, there still seems to be no real meeting of minds on the endgame.

The process is much more political than before and less legalistic, and that has to be welcomed, but people do get hung up on words such as “federation” and “confederation”, without analysing what they mean in terms of where on the scale of the division of powers between the central state and the constituent parties the balance should be placed.

The UN is playing a constructive role, with a special representative, Taye-Brook Zerihoun, who tells me that he is “paid to be optimistic”. The UN Secretary-General’s special adviser, the former Australian Foreign Secretary, Alexander Downer, has also played a constructive role. The UN approach is to work towards a framework agreement—not a detailed one, such as Annan 5, which failed—to try to build trust and confidence as the process continues. On 10 January, Mr. Downer said that there was momentum and that he was cautiously optimistic. He said that the process needed to be owned not by the UN or the international community, but by the people of Cyprus, and that the solution would have to be put to the people, and it should not be one drawn up by foreigners. He is a politician who understands the need to have an outcome acceptable to both communities in a referendum.

As always, the key to progress in Cyprus is to be found in Ankara. Turkey is now a member of the United Nations Security Council and in June it takes over its presidency. It will be scrutinised more closely as a Security Council member and soon-to-be president, and it will need to be part of the Security Council’s consensus. Bearing in mind also that Cyprus is a recognised member of the UN, Turkey will have to discuss these issues with Cyprus’s permanent representative to the UN.

Turkey and the EU will seek to review the accession process this year. Turkey has failed completely to implement the Ankara protocol dealing with relations with Cyprus. Ali Erel, the chairman of the Cyprus-EU Association and a respected Turkish Cypriot, says that Turkey is spoilt by the EU. At the end of last year, the Turkish navy harassed the Republic of Cyprus’s survey ships which were operating in accordance with the international law of the sea in the exclusive economic zone, looking for oil and other resources that would ultimately be for the benefit of all Cypriots. That cannot be allowed and we have to condemn it. It will inevitably lead to reciprocal action by Cyprus, disrupting the energy chapter in Turkey’s accession process, if that is to proceed.

Turkey remains in military occupation of northern Cyprus, with an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 troops. UNFICYP puts the figure towards the bottom end of that bracket, but Turkey could reduce troop numbers with no risk to security in the north, and should do so as a confidence-building measure. We understand that there is a new general in charge of the north, General Zorlu, who has a long history of participating in peacekeeping operations, and that has to be a positive sign for Cyprus.

The Turkish Cypriot economy is very weak. It is founded on casinos and nightclubs, with a property boom based on Greek Cypriot land that has now come to a juddering halt. The Turkish Cypriot economy has seen minus 5 per cent. growth and it would be bankrupt without the subsidy from Turkey of 14 per cent. of its budget. Some 39 per cent. of that budget is spent on public sector pay. Turkey is now getting tough with a wage freeze, but this position cannot be sustained. We need real progress for the benefit of Turkish Cypriots.

The EU has given €259 million in aid to northern Cyprus to bring it closer to Europe and to facilitate settlement, but that money has been disbursed extremely slowly. By October last year, less than half—€119 million—had been tendered, and only €60 million, or half of that, had been contracted. Less than half of that— €25.5 million or only 10 per cent. of the total—had actually been spent. That is not TRNC money: it is EU money that should be spent for the benefit of Turkish Cypriots.

I was pleased to meet the new EU Head of Representation, Androulla Kaminara, when I was in Cyprus. She was very impressive. Unlike her predecessor, she is prepared to travel to the north, and she is working hard to involve Turkish Cypriots in a greater understanding of the EU and what it can achieve for northern Cyprus. However, the area needs much greater understanding of how the EU operates. For example, one of the logjams in the negotiations was the issue of the central bank. The northern Cypriots wanted to have their own central bank, which would not be possible through EU membership—showing a lack of understanding of how the EU operates.

We need more confidence-building measures, which maintain confidence when slow progress is made in the talks and little information is coming out. A good example of that was the opening of the Ledra street crossing on 3 April. That created a groundswell of good feeling towards the process. On behalf of the Turkish Cypriots, Mr. Talat says that the concentration should be on a comprehensive solution and he is not too impressed by confidence-building measures. Of course, there will be difficulties in implementing some of them unilaterally because of the thorny issue of possible recognition of the north. One possibility would be to work through NGOs. For example, the trade issue was solved through the intervention of the Turkish Cypriot chamber of commerce as facilitator.

“We need to create and promote a culture of friendship and mutual trust, and admit the mistakes and crimes both communities committed in the past.”

That is a quotation from only a few weeks ago from Stephanos Stephanou, the presidential spokesman for the republic.

Confidence-building measures could include some of the 16 recommendations agreed by the technical committee. They include measures on crime-fighting, the economy, cultural heritage, crisis management, humanitarian health issues and the environment, which could form the basis of confidence-building measures that would improve the daily lives of all Cypriots. I would like my hon. Friend to describe what we are doing to promote those ideas.

Crossing points are vital. The Ledra street crossing is open, and I have visited it. It was interesting to see what has been achieved, but the buildings need restoration and disengagement is also necessary. The Turkish military are not playing a constructive role in that respect. We need to see the crossing at Limnitis opened, but that has become bogged down in a bogus argument about the enclave at Kokkina, which is now solely occupied by Turkish troops and has no Turkish Cypriot civilians. President Christofias has said that there is a possibility for Turkish Cypriot civilians to cross into Kokkina, but not military supplies or traffic. The crossing is vital because hours are added to the journeys of Greek Cypriots travelling to that region.

The Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus is working well and is not politicised by either side. I visited the laboratory for the second time and was very impressed by the progress that is being made. There have been 466 exhumations so far and 110 sets of remains have been returned—78 to Greek Cypriots and 32 to Turkish Cypriots. The annual budget for the committee and its work is $3 million a year. In the three years from 2004 to 2007, we donated £160,000. We ought to consider further payments because the committee needs those extra bilateral donations. Altogether, some 2,000 Cypriots are missing from each side—1,493 from 1974 and 503 from 1963-64. There is still a lot of work to be done and there are at least two years of exhumations to go. It is one of the very good bi-communal projects on the island, with Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots working side by side in the laboratory and on the sites that are being excavated.

De-mining is also important for confidence building. The United Nations Development Programme has cleared 51 minefields. That has largely been funded by the EU but there is a €5 million shortfall. That money will be needed to clear the rest of the zone, and the UN says that it could do it if it had the money. We could help by making a donation towards that. The buffer zone occupies 3 per cent. of the land. If that land could be liberated from the mines and from that part of the process, it would be available for civilian use, which could help towards a settlement.

Education on the island is also important. I was pleased to have the opportunity to meet Mrs. Olympia Stylianou, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education and Culture in the republic. The emphasis now is on the creation of a culture of peaceful cohabitation and trying to create an inclusive Cypriot national identity. The history books in the north have been revised and the Greek Cypriots are revising theirs, too, with a committee of experts due to put forward a first draft of the new curriculum in the summer. There is progress on learning Turkish in the south, although there needs to be more similar work done in the north.

The Agios Antonios bi-communal school in the south, which I visited last year, is working very well and we need to see secondary provision, too. At Rizokarpasso school, I am pleased to see, we are no longer seeing censorship of school books and it follows the Greek Cypriot curriculum. Again, progress has been made.

Civil society is improving, but there is still a lot to do. AKEL and the CTP have significantly improved their contacts, which is important progress.

On trade, the Turkish Cypriot economy is controlled by Turkish business. Green line trade is starting to work, but still amounts to less than 5 per cent. of the exports from north to south. There is still pressure on those from the north not to use ports in the republic.

The benefits of a settlement are clear: €5,500 per household for each of the first seven years after the solution. That would make a big difference to the living standards of all Cypriots. The process is open-ended, but will it make progress? Turkish Cypriot elections are due on 19 April, and Turkish Cypriot presidential elections the following year. We have the review of the Turkish accession this year. The facts on the ground are vital in that context.

Increasing numbers of settlers in the north are a problem. We still do not know how many there are, although there have been various estimates. Some have suggested to me that only 100,000 Turkish Cypriots are left in the total population of the north. The teachers union in the north has estimated that only 3 per cent. of the children attending schools in the north are of Turkish Cypriot origin. That shows a significant increase in the number of settlers. Some 93 per cent. of hospital patients in the north are settlers, although that could be because Turkish Cypriots are making use of the hospitals in the south, as they are entitled to.

Mosque building in the north is also significantly on the increase. I saw that with my own eyes when I visited and it is a matter of great seriousness.

The property issue remains. Building on Greek Cypriot land has slowed down due to the recession, but its extent has been serious, particularly since the Annan failure, and the territorial implications for a settlement in Morphou, for example, are serious. The Turkish Cypriot property commission has now received 729 applications from Greek Cypriots, but the question of the adequacy of that process as a remedy for cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights has yet to be decided. Some 41 cases have been finalised. That shows that some Greek Cypriots, at least, are starting to despair of the possibility of a settlement.

There has been a reduction in the number of green line crossings. They are half what they were two years ago. The sovereign base areas do not keep any statistics for the crossings, and it would be helpful if they did so to ensure that we have a full picture.

Turkish Cypriots are increasingly claiming their political rights in the republic. Some have tried to claim their voting rights. Sener Levent, the editor of the newspaper Afrika, has told me that he plans to stand in the republic for one of the European Parliament seats in the summer. Cases have been brought before the European Court on the issue.

My right hon. Friend the Minister knows that just before Christmas we had a debate on the Foreign Affairs Committee’s human rights report. On that occasion, I brought to the attention of the House a number of serious human rights issues affecting Cypriots. Of course the general issues are well known; there is deprivation of property and expropriation in the north, refusal to allow people to return to their homes, and uninvestigated deaths from 1963, 1974 and many other conflicts. That is an important issue.

I urge my right hon. Friend to go to Karpas and see the enclaved people who live there. I visited it for the second time in autumn. They are living under significant oppression in what can only be described as a police state. They have no right to own a business; their property is exposed to being appropriated; and homes are in poor condition and are sometimes knocked down when people are away. People there live in extreme poverty and destitution, and the UN has talked about the hampering of its humanitarian and monitoring efforts for the people of Karpas by the Turkish army. It is a very serious problem, and we are not taking it seriously enough. There are only a few hundred people left there, and the number is declining.

The Maronites are also enclaved in the north. There are four Maronite villages and only 142 people left there. One village, Agia Marina, is an army camp, and visiting the church there is not allowed. I went to the barrier, and we were politely refused access. In Asomatos, people are allowed to visit the church for only a couple of hours every Sunday, and they are not allowed to ring the church bell. Visits to the churches at Agios Mamas and Morphou were not allowed, either. Apostolos Andreas in Karpas badly needs repairs, and when I went there on the night before St. Andrew’s day—my day, as it were—the police had intervened to stop the bell being rung there, too. That is not appropriate.

A whole raft of court cases brought against Turkey are working their way through the European Court. My right hon. Friend knows that I have asked parliamentary questions about that. I understand from her answers that she is not prepared to comment further while those cases are proceeding, but that is a pity. What should our Government do? Obviously we have to support the efforts of both sides. We should not get involved in the way that we did with the Annan plan; the process has to be bottom-up. It should be from the Cypriots, by the Cypriots and for the Cypriots.

We should encourage confidence-building measures. In particular, we should put our hand in our pocket for the missing persons initiative and de-mining activities. We should consider the future of the sovereign base areas land. At the right time, we will need to give appropriate indications that the deal on offer in the Annan plan will be on offer again. We also need to look at the future of the treaty of guarantee in those circumstances.

To conclude, if the current Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders, given their long personal and political history of co-operation together, cannot achieve a result, it is unlikely that anyone will. Neither side has a plan B; that would be reverting to the status quo, which, as time goes by, simply entrenches division. Both sides need to be flexible in the process. They may well have tactical positions, but we need a breakthrough. Although we can never say that the negotiations are the last chance, if they fail, any new effort will mean starting from a far worse position. We are pretty well drinking in the last chance taverna in Cyprus, and I hope that the negotiations between two people who have good will towards each other’s communities will bear fruit.

It is a pleasure to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), and I congratulate him on securing this debate. I welcome his interest in Cyprus, which is extremely wide-ranging, as I saw from the 47 parliamentary questions that he tabled before Christmas. I hope that the responses have been helpful. I think that we have one or two, or perhaps three, left to respond to. I also welcome the high level of parliamentary interest in Cyprus, which comes often, but not exclusively, from those Members with a large number of Cypriot constituents.

As my hon. Friend said, the current round of talks is probably the best opportunity that there has ever been to solve the Cyprus problem. A solution is essential for the peace and prosperity of the whole region. First and importantly, it will create a better future for the people of Cyprus. The UN green line cuts through the island like a scar, and I think that we all agree that the division has gone on for far too long. It is in everyone’s interest that the next generation does not grow up knowing only division, buffer zones and peacekeepers.

Both communities will gain from the political, economic and social benefits of a settlement. For Greek Cypriots, a solution will offer stability and security as well as the chance to recover their property. Turkish Cypriots will be able to reach their economic potential by fully realising the advantages, and sharing the responsibilities, of EU membership. We all want Cyprus to thrive as a united country within the EU.

In their negotiations, the two leaders, President Christofias and Mr. Talat, have an opportunity to reunite the island. The weight of history is on their shoulders, and we share with the rest of the international community an expectation that everyone with a stake in resolving the issue will remain engaged, positive and supportive, and that that very real opportunity will be seized.

We are committed in the UK to doing all that we can to assist all the parties in the process of finding a settlement for Cypriots, by Cypriots. I have made that one of my top personal priorities. Indeed, in my first week in my job, I went to Cyprus and met the leaders, as well as Alexander Downer, the UN special envoy to Cyprus. I plan to visit again, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon suggested, in the next few weeks to reiterate my support for the negotiations.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her visit and, indeed, for her forthcoming visit. When she goes to the island, she will see once again the commitment of both communities to finding a solution that will end the division of the island. However, the negotiations and discussions have stalled, because not everyone who should be participating is doing so. Would she find the time when she is in Nicosia to visit Ankara and Athens, so that we can bring together all the guarantor powers to ensure that everyone is on the same side in finding a solution for the island?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I pay tribute to his long-standing interest and concern about the area. I visited Ankara just before Christmas, and made our views known to our Turkish colleagues about the important role that they can play in creating a positive atmosphere for those talks. Although those talks are difficult, I was pleased that shortly after assuming my post—and I am not saying that this is down to me, by any stretch of the imagination—regular weekly meetings resumed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon suggested, there have been two in the past two weeks, and another is due tomorrow. Building momentum is important, and whether it is in Ankara or in Athens, or elsewhere in the EU or in the world—my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) mentioned the US in this regard earlier this week—it is about being supportive of the process and seeing how we can further ensure that the talks are successful. Turkey, as I said, has a particularly important role to play, and it has much to gain. It certainly impressed on me its positive messages, and in making those messages, we expect it to fulfil its obligations under the accession process, including on the Ankara protocol.

In the time that is left, I shall try to address the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon. With regard to oil exploration, we have made our expectations and views clear to Turkey. We continue to urge restraint, as further escalation would be counter-productive. As a signatory to the UN convention on the law of the sea, the Republic of Cyprus is within its rights to explore for oil and natural resources in its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. Given the heightened importance of energy security, it is in our strong interests that discussions on the energy chapter in Turkey’s EU negotiations should proceed. We regret that that is not happening at present, and that some recent incidents, including the harassment of oil exploration vessels off the coast of the Republic of Cyprus, have made forward momentum more difficult. Given the current energy situation, there is a great opportunity for Turkey to demonstrate the positive role that it can play in tackling those issues.

My hon. Friend mentioned EU funding. While implementation of the regulations has been slower than anticipated, the benefits are already being felt. Again, that is something that could be stepped up in the months ahead. I totally support confidence-building measures, which play an important role, and that is why we greatly welcomed the cancelling of military exercises and parades in October and November. However, more can be done. Crossing points have been shown to increase inter-communal dialogue and trade between local businesses. It is clearly important that communities that are no more than a few hundred metres apart, but which had little daily contact for 34 years, are opened up to each other for the benefit of all. I hope progress can soon be made on the Limnitis crossing, and that is certainly something that I shall raise when I am on the island to see whether progress can be made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon asked about missing persons, and I can tell him that the Government fully support the work of the committee on missing persons. We donate to its budget both through the EU and directly, and hope that it can continue to work in an uninhibited way to build confidence on the island.

It is also important that the necessary funds are found to secure the sustainability of a settlement on the island. The committee on missing persons and other issues are clearly going to be important matters for discussion in the future by the UK, the UN and the EU, as we must make sure that any settlement that might be forthcoming is sustainable.

I am also aware of the key work done by UN development programme staff in removing land mines in the buffer zone. That work is supported by both the Government and the EU. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, I am concerned about the shortfall in funding for the mining action centre in 2009, and I agree that its important work should continue. I have been discussing the matter here in the UK this week, and it is also due to be discussed in Brussels and in Nicosia. We will explore what might be possible, and I shall be happy to keep my hon. Friend and others informed of developments.

I am also concerned about the continuing appropriation of, and construction on, land owned by Greek Cypriots in northern Cyprus. Our high commission in Nicosia regularly raises the issue with the Turkish Cypriot leadership. We must ensure that the matter is resolved if a comprehensive settlement is to be secured.

I am aware of the difficulties faced by Greek Cypriot communities in the northern part of Cyprus. They are living in enclaves as a result of the political situation on the island and the presence of Turkish troops in the north. I am also aware of the continued difficulties faced by the Maronite community in Cyprus. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon described some of the factors that mean that people are unable to worship or pray in their local churches, but I hope that discussing these problems will mean that we can make progress. It is really important that all Cypriots on the island feel that they have a stake in their future, and that these matters can be resolved.

I turn now to the question of the sovereign base areas, some issues relating to which may arise during the negotiations. As I said earlier, we will be ready to discuss these at the appropriate time. The future of the treaty of guarantee will also feature in the negotiations and, as one of the guarantor powers, the UK will be ready to discuss that at the appropriate time. We will certainly not stand in the way of an agreement on this issue.

As a result of the diaspora, there is a large Cypriot community in the UK totalling something like 300,000 people. They also have an important role to play in supporting the settlement negotiations, in which I know that they take a very keen interest. I have been in contact with a number of Cypriot diaspora groups and their media, and am committed to maintaining and developing strong relationships with both communities. That is absolutely essential.

I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon for raising this issue, and my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton for attending the debate. Also, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) for serving on the Bench behind me. I know that he too takes an interest in these matters.

It would be particularly helpful if all of us with an interest in this subject could work together towards the goal of a reunited island. It will not be easy, but this is an opportunity that must be seized. For my part, I look forward to discussing this further with hon. Members, and to working together in support of a settlement.

The present financial situation and other problems mean that these are difficult times but, without being over-confident, I think that we can have some hope that progress will be made on this issue and that a division that I believe has gone on for too long for all Cypriots can be brought to an end.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.