Cyprus, the birthplace of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, is a captivating east Mediterranean island, full of ancient history, stunning beaches and luscious food and wine. It also possesses the last divided capital of Europe: Nicosia. In this city, as long as you are in the Greek-speaking South, you are able to pay with euros, you are exposed to various EU and Republic of Cyprus (ROC) flags and you can even settle down if you have an EU passport —standard European Union membership. Nevertheless, as you reach the centre of the city, you meet a wall, barbed wire and observable on the other side: Turkish and Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) flags overlooking the southern districts of the city next to an Ottoman tower. If you want to cross to this side, you can only do so by foot through the Ledras crossing point, a de facto frontier of the European Union. Yet, before you actually enter the TRNC, you have to walk through 100 meters of United Nations (UN) -controlled “no man’s land”. On the northern side, you are greeted with a gothic church converted into a mosque, the same byzantine-ottoman style buildings and streets of the south, yet now you pay with Liras and if you want to settle down with an EU passport, you need a visa, even though on paper, this is still EU territory.
So, what is going on?
Although we observe two protagonist entities, the ROC and the TRNC, there is a bigger international conflict involving the UN, three NATO members, a former EU country and a current EU state: Turkey, the United Kingdom and Greece. If we look at the map below, it becomes much clearer.
History of Cyprus
Retrieved from: Google Maps
In order to explain the current situation on this island, it is important to look at the past. Since ancient times, it has been controlled by large empires such as the Persians, the Greeks under Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Venetians, etc. It has been a territory widely attractive to large civilizations due to its strategic location on the East Mediterranean, right on the crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia. The roots of the current situation start from the rule of the Ottoman Empire, roughly 500 years ago. From this time, Turkic muslims from around the empire started settling into the island, living harmoniously alongside the Greek christians. At the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was in decline, meaning that most of its territory was starting to be seen as an opportunity for the current colonial European powers such as France and Britain. Furthermore, during this time, the Suez canal was being completed and, as it halved the travel time between Europe and India, the British saw it as necessary to secure access to this waterway. As Cyprus was right above the entry of the canal, it was the most logical point to control.
After the end of the 19th century with the Ottoman Empire in decline, Great Britain effectively controlled the island, incorporating it as a crown colony after WW1. During this time, it had created new infrastructure and demographic labels to understand and see where Turkish and Greek Cypriots lived and worked. Enacting policy based on these identity divisions. Nevertheless, after WWII, the growing decolonization movement and local awareness about their historical situation of external control for thousands of years started to spark anti-British sentiment from both Turkish and Greek Cypriot populations. In the 1950s, violent attacks against the British army ended up with the British understanding that it was time to leave, and for the first time, opened the possibility of Cypriots governing themselves.
Origins of the current conflict
Even though the anti-British sentiment was shared among Turkish and Greek Cypriots, the ideas about the future of the island started to differ and this led to tensions amongst the two groups. During this time, the power vacuum caused polarisation between the ethnicities, which were latching on and inflating identities in order to differentiate themselves from the other side. This was exacerbated by the political goals of the future of the island: Greek Cypriots did not seek independence, they wanted Enosis: unification with Greece. Obviously, Turkish Cypriots were not keen on becoming more of a minority, and thus advocated for a division of the island. Furthermore, violence had caused individual Turkish populations to gather in clusters instead of mingling among the Greeks in different villages as they have done for hundreds of years.
As tensions grew, the British decided to plan the future of Cyprus alongside representatives from Greece and Turkey. In London, a democratic constitution was drafted for a new independent state of Cyprus where neither party got their aforementioned wishes. In this new independent country, there would be a Greek president, a Turkish vice president and the parliamentary seats would be shared between the Turks and the Greeks at a 30/70 ratio. Moreover, Britain would retain their military bases and there was a clause designating Greece and Turkey as guarantor powers, with the right to “intervene for peace-keeping purposes.”
This constitution was unsuccessful at taming the political tension, and culminated in 1974, when the military government of Greece set to carry out the unification of the island with Greece. For this purpose, the junta sponsored the coup d’état against Cypriot president Makarios. In response, Turkey declared that Greece is in violation of the agreement by intervening politically and therefore they have the right to “restore peace.” In July of the same year, Turkish troops landed in Girne (Kyrenia), and the north of the island fell under the control of Turkey in only 2 months. Turkey and Turkish Cypriots, displacing thousands of Greek Cypriots to the South, then declared the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Subsequently, a ceasefire was carved out, and there would be a buffer zone administered by the UN. Within this zone, hundreds of kilometers of land, entire villages and the former international airport, would become part of an internationally administered no man’s land—becoming an island divided into 4.
The European Union and its role in the conflict resolution of Cyprus
The Republic of Cyprus (ROC) was invited to join the European Union in 2003 which set a big push for a peace reunification settlement sponsored by United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan. The plan set a reunified nation called “The United Republic of Cyprus” which would encompass a federation of two constituent states: the Greek and Turkish states. The Federal government would resemble that of Switzerland, in which there would be a collective presidential council of 6 voting members proportional to population: two Turkish and four Greek. A bicameral legislature, where the (upper) senate has an equal number of representatives of both states and a (lower) chamber of deputies that would have proportional representation. The supreme court would have an equal number of Turkish and Greek judges, as well as four foreign judges. In the end, this proposal did not materialize nor did the EU accession serve as a catalyst for conflict resolution. For this to occur, a referendum was held prior to the adhesion to the EU. TNRC citizens voted in favor whereas ROC citizens voted against. This brought an amount of issues for the European Union and the Greek republic of Cyprus. The adhesion meant, for the first time, that the Union would have territory and people that are not under de facto control.
Until today, the TNRC is still an unrecognized state by the international community. However, as the ROC claimed the entirety of the island’s territory, it would join the EU as such; meaning that the island in its whole would become EU territory—including the Turkish Cypriots as ROC citizens. As mentioned, the idea that the entire island was claimed by the ROC meant that TNRC citizens were also part of this state, and therefore—from the perspective of the ROC—were to be included as EU citizens. Hitherto, Turkish Cypriots that were able to demonstrate that their families had inhabited the island before 1974 could obtain ROC nationality relatively easily. They only had to go through a bureaucratic procedure in southern Nicosia which is also sometimes available in the Turkish language—the ROC state is officially bilingual. Nevertheless, what did this mean for the EU? As the ROC proceeded to be incorporated into the Union, an amount of issues related to the Turkish North remained unsolved.
The membership of Cyprus to the EU brought to the surface internalised issues in Brussels. First of all, when the EU started the wave of expansion, the ROC did not comply with the condition of resolving national conflicts. Even though the invitation to join the EU did influence the island’s position towards this conflict, it did not resolve the conflict per se, as the change in views was mostly due to adapting to the integrative policy of the EU. This is clearly observed by the idea that both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots were in favor of joining the union, but Greek Cypriots were against reunification. Also, it is important to mention that at the time, Turkey was also a strong candidate for joining the EU and hence, may have impacted the views of Turkish Cypriots.
Naturally, the idea of having to officially recognize as EU territory a land that was not under the control of the member state brought unforeseen challenges to European institutions. In order to address this, the EU set the following three regulations in 2004. The first was a direct trade regulation which would incorporate the TNRC into the EU common market. This was blocked by Greek Cypriots. As a response, the second regulation was the green line regulation, which regulated the crossing of goods and people through the UN buffer zone and set the standards of the EU towards TNRC products. For instance, Halloumi cheese is registered as a Protected Designation Origin from Cyprus, but this includes cheese produced in both the North and the South. Finally, a financial aid regulation as an EU aid program for Northern Cyprus in order to finance education, youth programs, and community development was implemented. This last regulation has been relatively successful but is still limited because of EU restrictions in working with the de facto authorities of the TNRC.
Prospects for Cyprus
Today, the Republic of Cyprus is an international tourist destination that was able to develop strong real estate and financial services industries by maintaining the essence of its proud and hospìtable people. Furthermore, the integration process of the ROC within the EU seems stronger than ever. Plans to reopen Famagusta, a famous beach town now abandoned in the TNRC, have also been discussed with the terms that Greek Cypriots may be able to reopen their economic activity and seek compensation. For the TNRC, it’s people have an adequate standard of living which has also kept peace in this part of the island. However, here, the EU integration process seems to be far from achievable, as well as the advances in international recognition, at least on paper. The current conservative president, Ersin Tartar, received a visit from president Erdogan of Turkey in July 2021. The purpose was to unveil a new presidential palace project financed by Ankara, but his party also expected the announcement that some other Turkic states would recognize the TNRC—something that did not happen. Nevertheless, this visit served to identify that the AKP government of Turkey is determined to maintain the status quo of the divided island. Even though the official message is to protect the interest of Turkish Cypriots, some European policy makers are wary of the motivations behind Ankara, and perceive them as “part of the expansionist strategy of Erdogan in the East Mediterranean”.
The conflict in Cyprus seems to be in a stalemate which may not change in the near future. However, the island continues to develop economically and socially, especially the ROC. The TNRC still depends much on mainland Turkey, and the challenges for its citizens of not being part of a recognized state continues to hinder international opportunities. Even though EU regulations do not allow the European Union to cooperate with de facto authorities of “its occupied land,” it is able to update its policy in order to allow more flexibility, and at least, extend the EU message to this part of the island and its inhabitants.
Diego Vallejo has obtained a master’s degree in International Development from the Barcelona Institute of International studies and currently works as an international risk control trainee for SUEZ environment overviewing operations in Southern Europe and Latin America.