By Stefanos Evripidou
ON AN invitingly warm evening in Brussels last Tuesday, a 56-year-old Cypriot climbed the mountain he had been preparing for all his life, reaching the summit in just over three hours with two flags in hand.
The man was former government spokesman Christos Stylianides and the mountain was the gruelling hearing at the European Parliament (EP), where he answered over 45 questions from MEPs on his ability to perform the task of EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management.
While some commissioners-designate reportedly stayed clear of the portfolio, Stylianides actively sought a meaty, challenging role in the new European Commission under Jean-Claude Juncker.
The EU is by far the largest donor of humanitarian aid in the world and at present has to deal with an unprecedented number of crisis zones (Syria, Iraq, Central African Republic, South Sudan…), while natural disasters are on the increase and viruses like Ebola are being likened to a “typhoon in slow motion”.
The new portfolio involves dealing with millions of refugees, displaced, starving, under threat or persecuted people from around the world. It covers developing and developed countries, including EU member states. The potential audience reaches seven billion.
After the hearing with the EP’s Development Committee, a tired-looking Stylianides passed the opportunity to take more questions from a visiting group of Cypriot journalists.
Fair enough, his purview is no longer limited to a tiny island in the eastern Mediterranean.
As he walked away with his new circle of advisers and admirers, a sense pervaded the air that the former dental surgeon had reached his Ithaca. His past was behind him now, as he dived into the vortex of European politics.
It remains to be seen whether he too, like Odysseus, will be forced to face the voracious ‘suitors’ waiting to upend him.
His journey started in the last century with the Movement of Political Modernisation that promoted unity across the party spectrum. In 1998, he was appointed government spokesman by Glafcos Clerides but resigned a year later, saying the job conflicted with his principles.
He was voted into parliament twice, in 2006 and 2011, before being appointed again as government spokesman by Nicos Anastasiades in 2013.
In the first weeks and months, he did his best to keep a cool head while the country seemed to fall apart. Stylianides pleaded with the public not to judge the new government on what was decided in the ill-fated Eurogroup meetings, but on what it would do after.
As time wore on, and the president showed an appetite for public sparring with the opposition, Stylianides faded into the background, allowing his deputy to take the limelight.
His heart was set on bigger things. In early 2014, he resigned a second time as spokesman to run in the EP elections. He secured the seat in Strasbourg, but had his eyes set on a ‘core’ portfolio in the new Commission.
Friends close to him say he has always been a ‘true believer’ in the European project, rather than someone who simply talks the talk when a good job opportunity arises.
Juncker announced the allocation of the various portfolios on September 10, leaving Stylianides 20 days and nights to get clued up on his new brief so as to pass unscathed from the often brutal claws of the hearing committee.
The EP showed it was not afraid to flex its muscles in previous hearings in 2004 and 2010, forcing President Jose Manuel Barroso both times to replace unpopular commissioners-designate and relocate others.
Stylianides’ predecessor in his designated portfolio, Kristalina Georgieva, only got the job in 2010 because Bulgaria’s initial candidate fell foul of an unsuccessful hearing.
And four years on, it looks like MEPs have lost none of their enthusiasm. Stylianides’ future colleagues from Britain, France, Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary all face a rough ride for approval, while the odds of Spanish commissioner-designate Miguel Arias Canete taking the Climate Action and Energy portfolio are slim at best, given his alleged links to the oil sector.
Perhaps Stylianides’ relatively modest background, compared to some of his colleagues who served as heads of government or cabinet ministers in powerful countries, worked in his favour.
He took on a job that others might have snubbed, and as he confessed during his hearing, spent sleepless nights getting briefed on a portfolio he was not fully informed on.
Whatever the backdrop to the crucial hearing, one thing was clear last Tuesday night in Brussels: the Cypriot commissioner-designate aced it.
Initially nervous and loud in his introductory speech in English, Stylianides soon eased into an increasingly confident exchange with MEPs, using his mother tongue.
The former spokesman’s biggest attribute appeared to be the honesty of his intentions. An observer of his political career will know that Stylianides was always the more rational head in the room. His outlook and ambition never really seemed to fit with the parochial, wheeler-dealing short-sightedness of Cypriot politics.
MEPs could be forgiven for taking his opening remarks that he felt honoured and privileged to take on this portfolio with a dose of cynicism but by the end of the three-hours, they were clearly sold.
Stylianides smartly addressed MEPs as his colleagues and fellow politicians, ignoring the traditional rivalry between the EU institutions. He spoke on his subject with conviction, unafraid to talk values and ideals, in a world increasingly clouded by scepticism.
He agreed with his interrogators frequently but was not afraid to disagree on occasion or admit when he didn’t know something. He was able to identify when an issue raised was beyond his remit.
He touched upon his own background briefly and impartially: “As a child and then again as a student I witnessed the suffering of the people of Cyprus. Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. I witnessed the pain of displacement. I understood the hard way the importance and the necessity of humanitarian aid. Let me be clear: the impact of conflict has no ethnic or religious colour. It hits everyone.”
Regarding the creeping rise of Ebola, he vowed to visit the affected areas in West Africa immediately after his appointment, to see with his own eyes what’s happening on the ground and encourage foreign medical staff to go there, providing evacuation is made possible.
When asked in writing and orally about the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) to be held in Istanbul in May 2016, Stylianides acknowledged the importance of it being hosted by a major humanitarian donor, Turkey. As a secular Muslim country, this sends an important message to Muslim countries who will be the new donors, he said.
During questioning, many MEPs started with a comment acknowledging his “commitment”, “passion”, clarity and people-friendly approach. His predecessor Georgieva tweeted that he was “speaking from the heart” and was “strong and convincing”.
There was even space for our celeb-obsessed culture to show its face as a number of people present compared him on social media with veteran movie star Omar Sharif.
After receiving a warm round of applause on closing, the Sunday Mail learnt that the development committee unanimously approved his posting.
Committee chairwoman Linda McAvan reportedly described Stylianides as having the integrity, ability and experience required to become a member of the new Commission.
Assuming he doesn’t fall victim to a Juncker reshuffle prompted by other failed candidates, Stylianides will take office on November 1, standing on the mountaintop with the Cyprus flag firmly cemented in the ground, and the EU flag held high above his head.
We wish him well. And this time, millions depend on it.