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We can convince Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots to return to the negotiating table – UK High Commissioner

Irfan Siddiq was appointed British High Commissioner to Cyprus last August, having previously served as Ambassador in Sudan and Azerbaijan. During his time here, he saw a change in administration, helped forge an updated bilateral relationship outside the E.U. and has had to work in a rapidly changing geopolitical environment due to the war in Ukraine.

In an interview with Phileleftheros, he expresses the opinion that although it is a reality that Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot leadership are advocating for a two-state solution to the Cyprus problem, they can still be convinced to return to the negotiating table to discuss a bizonal, bicommunal federation.

Regarding President Christodoulides’s initiative to ask for further involvement by the E.U. in the negotiations, Siddiq says that Europe can be a part of a solution, adding that he expects to see developments on the Cyprus problem after the consequential Turkish elections in May.

On the war in Ukraine, the British High Commissioner says that Russia’s aggression has led Cyprus to clarify its positioning on the international stage towards the West.

Interview with Andreas Bimbishis and Stelios Marathovouniotis.

How are you finding life in Cyprus?

I’ve been here for seven months now. I chose to come to Cyprus because I was interested in coming here and I thought it was a place I would enjoy and so far it’s proven to be so. It’s a lovely island, with a lovely climate. I love the food, culture, and hospitality here. And for the U.K., it’s an interesting country and relationship. So there’s always interesting work as well. So far, so good!

There is a continued deadlock regarding the Cyprus problem for the past six years. Do you think that negotiations can resume?

The position of the new President is an encouraging one. He has clearly set out that the Cyprus problem is a priority for him. And he’s thought about ways to create incentives for the other side to come back to the talks. This is all positive. It’s not clear though whether it will be sufficient because over the last few years, the positions of the two sides have become farther and farther apart, particularly since the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey have been advocating for a two-state solution instead of the internationally accepted model of a bizonal bicommunal federation. So I think there’s a challenge for all of us to persuade the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey to come back to the model that we all agree is the right one. And it’s not clear how we do that; whether the incentives that the President has discussed will be sufficient, or whether something else will need to be done to convince them. 

I think now we are in the exploratory phase of the President setting out his ideas. It’s a little bit of a strange time because he’s been elected and he has his mandate and his ideas, but we have very soon the Turkish elections. Although it’s very important for us to be clear about the expectations and the positioning of the Republic of Cyprus and the Greek Cypriot community, it’s not a massive surprise if there will be some hesitation from the other side to wait until they set out their response. Until after the Turkish elections. It’s really important to have a very clear offer from the Greek Cypriot side and from the international community and that’s what’s being put on the table now. I know the president will be in Brussels this week for discussions with the European Union leaders and hopefully, it will be producing greater clarity around what the European Union offer will be. And I hope that as a result of that, we can get a clear position from Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots, but there will probably be a need to wait until after the Turkish election before we get there.

Are there any initiatives from the U.K. for resuming the talks?

In the past, we have sometimes been proactive when the situation has been dormant to try to stimulate things. I don’t think we feel the need to do that now because the drive is coming from the new government of the Republic of Cyprus and the new President. Our interest is in supporting the efforts of the new President to try to resume the talks, given that he has a clear vision. I don’t think it will make sense for us to bring new ideas. I have meetings with the Turkish Cypriot leadership and I will encourage them to be positive in their response. And we have engagements with the government of Turkey where again, we will be encouraging them, but with the fact that they’re now pretty much in a pre-election period, I don’t know how much attention they will pay to the initiative of the Republic of Cyprus. Certainly, after their elections, we will continue to push them if we find that the offer and the initiative from the President of the Republic of Cyprus still aren’t convincing the Turks and the Turkish Cypriots to come back to the table. Maybe there will be a need for some new ideas, but I don’t think we’re in those in that position yet.

Usually, when we talk about the Cyprus issue, the mention of new ideas is not welcome.

I’ve been a diplomat for 25 years. I’ve worked on many complicated political issues, but not the Cyprus issue. And it’s very clear to me that there’s a huge amount of sensitivity about the language here and I respect that. But at the same time, part of me thinks if you haven’t seen any progress in almost 50 years, maybe you should be a little bit less sensitive about language because you need creativity, you need new ways of approaching the issue. Otherwise, we’re likely to have the same outcomes. So from my perspective, the President is bringing new ideas through his focus on E.U. incentives, and through his willingness to not be held back by some of the taboos around what can be offered to the other side. So let’s not suggest that the U.K. is bringing new ideas. I’m not bringing in new ideas. I think the President is bringing new ideas and I hope that they will be welcomed. But if they aren’t able to bring the other side back to the table, maybe we need even more new ideas, but these should not be misinterpreted as a new overall framework. The internationally agreed approach is that set by the United Nations with the parameters set out by the bizonal bicommunal federation with political equality. 

The thing that we’ve always said is that isn’t a very narrowly prescriptive approach. It is quite a broad framework. What does it mean to have full political equality? What’s it mean to have a federation? What do bizonality and bicommunality mean? They can be interpreted in different ways. So within the agreed framework, there is still space for new ideas. At least on the U.K. side, we’re not talking about anything other than the agreed framework. But if, if the agreed framework, as it has been interpreted, hasn’t yet delivered the outcomes, then of course, we should have new ways of looking at it to deliver the outcomes that we want. I don’t think that is contentious or should be taboo. And if some people find that that’s something that should be criticised, I think they can look at themselves because, in a sense, they are the ones who are holding back a settlement. As long as it’s within the agreed framework, why should anything be taboo? 

The Turkish side is insisting on a two-state solution. How can we convince them to come back to the negotiating table as before and discuss on the basis of the agreed framework?

I think it is a reality that the Turkish Cypriot authorities and Turkey are in a very different place. And I think it’s worth asking yourself, why are they in a different place? Other times in history, the Turkish Cypriot leadership has been very committed to the bizonal bicommunal federation with political equality as they were under the leadership of Mr Akinci. But it’s the failure to make progress that has led, I think,  the Turkish Cypriot leadership and Turkey to move to a different position due to the frustration they felt that nothing has moved on. In a sense, what we need to deal with is not necessarily the proposals they’ve put, but the root of what’s causing this frustration with the lack of progress. And the feeling, as they have said to me many times in my discussions with them, that the lack of progress is something that they pay the cost for more than Greek Cypriots. 

Whether this is right or wrong, it’s a different matter. This is the perception. The Republic of Cyprus is a member of the E.U., it is internationally recognised and benefits from all of its engagements with the E.U. The socioeconomic situation in the Republic is more advanced and there’s more development than in the north. In the north they say we are isolated, we have embargoes, we don’t benefit from having E.U. support and so our socio-economic development is weaker. So we have, they argue, stronger urgency and incentive, and desire to reach a settlement so we can benefit from being on a united island. They see that the other side has denied us this, because they voted against the referendum in 2004. Because they see they scrapped the Crans Montana talks, people have a different interpretation. This is their perception. 

They feel that they need to take a different approach because the previous one didn’t deliver for them. If we collectively can show them that the previous framework, maybe with a new approach to it, can still deliver for them, I think they can be persuaded to come back to the table. But if they think you will just approach things in the same way as the past with no difference, then why would anybody expect to see different results? This was Einstein’s definition of insanity; that you try the same thing and expect a different result. And again, you try the same thing. Of course, it’s not going to be a different result. You need a different approach.

So this is where the E.U. can play a role?

I think the E.U. is part of the solution. The U.K. is no longer a part of the EU so I can’t speak for the E.U. But the E.U. has many benefits they can offer to Turkish Cypriots and to Turkey, which are important and should be part of the solution. In the past, there’s been a perspective here in the Republic that we should use the E.U. as a way to punish and pressure Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots by withholding things from them. By freezing accession negotiations, by voiding applications of certain things around trade or aid in the north. What the President said to me, which I think is a welcome change in approach, is that we recognise that this didn’t work and now instead of using the E.U. as a form of pressure, we want to use it as an incentive to offer these things now, not to hold them back and see if we can come back and reach an agreement, then this will be available to you. I think that’s a good approach.

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How has the U.K. foreign policy on Cyprus changed after Brexit? 

There has not been a change in our approach to the Cyprus problem. But of course, there has been a change in our bilateral relations. Prior to 2016, we had a relationship that was defined in many ways by a common E.U. membership, and a lot of our interaction and engagement was through the E.U. Part of the reason for our withdrawal from the E.U. was that we wanted to have stronger bilateral relations and not rely upon the E.U. as the means through which to manage our relationships. So, since we left the E.U., we have been investing in redefining our relationship in a much stronger bilateral sense. 

One area for example, where I know Brexit has complicated our relationship is education. We’re very proud of the fact that prior to Brexit we had many Cypriot students studying in the U.K. Brexit has meant that Cypriot students have to now pay full foreign fees which are very expensive compared to the home fee status and so a lot of them are choosing not to study in the U.K. One of the things that we’re hoping to address is finding ways – although we don’t have an answer yet – scholarships or some other ways, to be able to continue to facilitate the study of Cypriot students in the U.K.

On foreign policy, prior to Brexit, we had our E.U. Foreign Affairs discussions where we agreed on things together. But now through this annual dialogue, we will have discussions on important issues like the war in Ukraine and our support to Ukraine, as well as our firm stance of supporting international law, sovereignty, territorial integrity – which is also important to Cyprus – in our response to Russia and our imposition of sanctions. 

So one other area, that we’re seeking to invest in is our mutual support and collaboration on sanctions implementation. For example, we have quite a developed infrastructure around sanctions implementation. We’re working with the Cypriot government to support them to set up an office for sanctions implementation under the Ministry of Finance. We’ve been providing some technical support and capacity-building on that. 

Similarly, in the last couple of years, we’ve been working bilaterally to support the government through the Deputy Ministry for Innovation, Research and Digital Policy to set up a digitisation of government services. We have an arm of the U.K. government called Government Digital Service, which has been working with the Deputy Ministry to develop its own digital factory for providing digital services to citizens in the Republic of Cyprus. 

Has the war in Ukraine moved Cyprus closer to the West? How does the U.K. view this development?

Cyprus has been a member of the E.U. for 20 years, so it has strong links to Western alliances and organisations. People tell me that prior to the war in Ukraine, maybe because of religious or historical links, or because Cyprus used to be quite active in the non-aligned movement, there was a desire to balance between Russia and the West, which is understandable. What I think the war in Ukraine has done is it has clarified that Cyprus’ orientation is very clearly towards the West. An invasion of this form is a repudiation, a rejection of everything that the E.U. stands for: rule of law, human rights, democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. And these are all things that Cyprus is strongly committed to. So I think it has clarified that this sort of non-aligned balancing is no longer possible. 

Cyprus has committed itself fully to the implementation of the E.U. sanctions and endorsing European values. This is very welcome to the U.K. because it makes it clear that we are all in the same group of rejecting Russia’s illegal invasion, standing up for the values and principles of international law and protecting them through actions like sanctions implementation. So for us, it has helped us grow closer, as a result of this common solidarity we have with Ukraine against Russia.

How do you evaluate China’s increasing influence on international affairs?

China’s rise as a global player has been a trend that we’ve seen over many years. China does not share the same values and commitment to international norms as us. It is not a democracy, it doesn’t have the same commitment to human rights, as we’ve seen in places like Xinjiang, where there are concentration camp-type developments. It’s a worry for those of us who are democracies, who are committed to the rule of law, human rights, and all these values that are central to Europe, the E.U., the U.K., and the U.S. 

In places where we see China’s influence growing, we are concerned. In a place like Cyprus, which has always been open to investment and where in the past, Russia has had a lot of investments, the sanctions regime on Russia and Russia’s withdrawal from Cyprus, of course, open space for other actors to come in. We’re seeing Israeli and Gulf Arab investment coming in, which is great and fine. But if there’s more Chinese presence and influence, anywhere in the world, I think that is a cause for concern because of their model of governance and their vision of the world. That’s something that we will continue to pay attention to, and continue to highlight the risks of increasing Chinese presence as a systemic threat to the global world order that we want to protect. 

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