“The Greek Cypriot community is ready for reunification”

Demetris Christofias

The importance of negotiating a route towards the reunification of Cyprus is clearly critical for President Demetris Christofias, the man carrying political responsibility for the Greek Cypriot community on the divided island. In this interview with Global, he spells out the progress and setbacks during recent rounds of talks and his hopes for the economic future of an eventually reunified country

Global: How do you assess the prospects for the reunification of Cyprus, especially in the light of the recent talks with the northern Turkish leadership? Could the country be reunited any time soon, and is the Greek Cypriot community ready for this?

President Demetris Christofias: First, I need to say that the main reason for my decision to run for the Presidency of the Republic of Cyprus in 2008 was the solution of the Cyprus problem. The reunification of the country was, and remains, my adamant goal and is at the heart of our vision for the Cyprus of the 21st century. Immediately upon my assumption of the Presidency, we proved with our consistent and constructive stance at the talks, that we are ready for a mutual and honest compromise that will lead to the reunification of our homeland.

I therefore respond firmly to your question: Yes, the Greek Cypriot community is ready for reunification and is striving hard to achieve this as soon as possible. During the course of the almost two-and-a-half years of direct talks we have consistently demonstrated our political will for a solution by undertaking initiatives and submitting reasonable and constructive proposals.

I need to clarify that the talks are not taking place in the dark. On the contrary, they are conducted on an agreed basis. This basis provides for a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation with political equality as defined in the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, and for one state with indivisible sovereignty, a single international personality and a single citizenship. The talks are also conducted within the framework of an agreed procedure of Cypriot ownership, under the good offices mission of the UN Secretary- General, and there is no question of the imposition of arbitration and artificial timetables. The agreed and mutually acceptable so

Solution will be put to the people of Cyprus for approval in separate simultaneous referenda.

Until today, some important convergences on three of the seven negotiating chapters (namely governance and power-sharing, European matters and the economy) have been achieved. At the same time though, serious divergences within these said chapters remain, while some chapters have barely been touched. I must admit that we had expected more progress. We had also expected that our proposal, for the linkage of the property and territory chapters, on the table since the summer of 2010, would have been accepted.

The talks are a mirror for us all. Unfortunately, especially lately, proposals outside the agreed basis are being submitted, regardless of reassurances to the contrary. In parallel, already agreed issues are being challenged. This causes us concern.

We are determined to continue our efforts with goodwill to achieve more positive results and we hope that the same goodwillwill also be demonstrated by the Turkish Cypriot side and, of course, by Turkey, which maintains occupation troops on the island and whose role is decisive. Mere declarations in public are no longer convincing. If this is a matter of urgency for Turkey, if Turkey is indeed dissatisfied with the status quo, if what Turkey is aiming at is in line with the basis and the principles of the solution, then there is a way for her to show this in deeds and not just in words.

If both sides hold fast to their existing positions, would that be the end of the matter or could there still be some continued momentum towards a solution?

We understand the negotiations as a process, as an effort to achieve a mutually acceptable solution through dialogue. It is the only way to find common ground and bridge the differences. The Greek Cypriot side has demonstrated that it is ready for the compromise that is needed and committed to the goal of reunification. We believe we can do it, on the condition that the discussion takes place within the framework, on the basis and on the principles I have already described and, of course, if we continue by building, step by step, on the foundations of the agreed convergences; it will not happen by dismantling those we have already reached. In that case, yes, we can create and preserve the momentum.

The relationship with the public is two-way. We, the leaders, cannot neglect the message and the pulse of the society. A few days ago, our Turkish Cypriot compatriots went on the streets, sending messages to Turkey that the current situation cannot continue because it puts their future and their survival at stake. We fully understand these calls. The bi-zonal, bi-communal federal solution with political equality, in which neither community can impose its will on the other, is our response to the expectations and concerns of both communities.

Is Cyprus’s membership of the European Union a significant factor in facilitating reunification?

The comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem must be in line with the principles on which the European Union is founded. It is a condition of the EU, it is a provision of Cyprus’ Accession Treaty obligations to the EU. Turkish Cypriots are also citizens of the EU. However, in order for the Turkish Cypriot community as a whole to reap the benefits of Cyprus’ 2004 accession, the current suspension of the acquis communautaire [the entire body of EU law] in the occupied area will have to be lifted. This will take place with reunification. EU member state status is the best safeguard of a peaceful future for Cyprus.

There is another aspect to this question, namely, Turkey’s candidate status. Cyprus supports the full accession of Turkey to the EU, provided that Ankara implements all its obligations to the EU, and its 27 member states, and contributes actively and effectively to the solution of the Cyprus problem. We believe that the accession of a modern Turkey, which respects the values and principles of the EU and fulfils all its obligations, will be to the benefit of Cyprus, the EU and Turkey itself.

What have been the principal political, social and economic benefits to Cyprus from the country’s EU membership to date?

The accession to the EU was a natural choice for the Republic of Cyprus, as dictated by its culture, civilisation and history. The principles of democracy, the rule of law, human rights, consensus-building and cooperation constitute the common basis of principles on which the EU establishes its unity. Accession granted the right for equal participation in Europe, while, at the same time, making it our duty to try to construct a Europe which will rise to the expectations of its citizens. The dimension of progress and a human-centric approach will form the basis of the Cyprus EU presidency in the second semester of 2012.

EU accession also strengthened the feeling of security and was supported universally by all in Cyprus, since it would greatly contribute to our principal aim of the solution to the Cyprus problem and reunification. As regards the economic aspect of accession, I must add that the adoption of the euro on 1 January 2008 has significantly facilitated commercial transactions.

How would you describe the country’s current economic outlook? Can the economy quickly recover from the effects of the global financial crisis?

Cyprus has weathered the storm reasonably well and was relatively less affected compared with other European economies, partly because of the strong and healthy banking system, which had very limited exposure to toxic products. In fact, the economic forecast for 2011 indicates that the Cyprus economy will grow markedly compared to the past two years.

The crisis has also affected the labour market in Cyprus and unemployment has increased, despite the fact that it remains below the EU average. Through various measures we are trying to counter this adverse situation. Public finances were also negatively affected, but we have set the target of lowering the fiscal deficit in line with our obligations to the [EU] Stability and Growth Pact. This is an attainable goal. Therefore, we have good reasons to believe that the outlook is positive and that we will be able to recover quickly and effectively from the effects of the global financial crisis.

What are the main longer-term challenges the economy faces and what are its principal strengths?

A number of challenges must be addressed in the coming years, such as placing the public finances on a sound footing, especially in view of the budgetary impact of an increasingly ageing population. We are actively working on further reforms in the areas of pension and health care systems to ensure the long-term viability of public finances. The enhancement of the competitiveness of the economy is a priority. We are aiming at increasing the volume of investments in infrastructure, particularly in the areas of transport, energy and telecommunications. A big emphasis is also placed on boosting research and development, maximising renewable energy resources and increasing energy efficiency, with significant incentives being provided for the private sector to invest in green activities.

Our geostrategic position at the crossroads of three continents and the very attractive taxation system, with a uniform corporation tax of 10 percent – the lowest in Europe – is one of our principal fortes, which is further strengthened by bilateral agreements for the avoidance of double taxation. Another of our assets is the high educational level of the workforce. One of the cornerstones of the Cyprus economy is social cohesion, based on a long tradition of close cooperation between employers, unions and the government. These are some of the reasons that Cyprus is a very attractive business destination.

Since the discoveries of natural gas in nearby waters, what kind of broad development benefits do you anticipate? Can one expect closer energy cooperation with neighbouring countries?

The process of oil and gas exploration is in a developing phase with positive indications so far. Taking also into consideration the recent developments as regards the explorations undertaken by Israel, we are very optimistic. Our next step, after the discovery of hydrocarbons, is to formulate the regulatory framework to utilise such benefits, weighing all the options and examining cooperation with other countries of the region. A critical issue is to convert the potential hydrocarbon wealth into sustainable, fair and human-centred development where all the citizens of the island, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, can jointly enjoy, in a reunified state, the benefits offered by the natural wealth of our homeland.

How can Cyprus secure its self-reliance in water with energy-intensive desalination plants at the same time as it strives to decrease its CO2 emissions?

The severe water scarcity and drought conditions in Cyprus have forced the government to turn to seawater desalination. Experience has shown that desalination remains the only means of achieving water security.

The available water was not enough to satisfy domestic and irrigation water needs, where recycled water is already extensively used. Efforts are also being made to exploit renewable energy sources in the operation of both the existing and future desalination plants, while a project for the creation of a solar-thermal powered desalination unit is planned. Concrete steps are being taken to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, to reduce the net demand for electricity and to reduce CO2 emissions in line with the government’s policy.

About the author:

President of Cyprus


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