Cyprus Mail
CM Regular Columnist Opinion

Federation: the least worst option 

The encroaching role of religion in President Recep Tayip Erdogan's Turkey is just one reason why Turkey should not be a guarantor in a federal Cyprus

By Alper Ali Riza

As the mood about the prospects of solving the Cyprus problem swings back and forth from optimism to pessimism, the ‘ism’ that is missing is the federalism that is going to be required for the incipient federal state to work.

Federalism is the belief that the federal system government is best for a country. If there are going to be simultaneous referendums early in 2016 on whether Cyprus is going to become a federation, the most important issue is whether the federal system of government is appropriate for Cyprus.

According to the late professor Kenneth Wheare of Oxford University ‘federal government is appropriate for communities if, at one and the same time, they desire to be united under a single independent general government for some purposes and to be organised as independent regional governments for others.’ They must ‘desire to be united not to be unitary.’

So there’s the rub for Cyprus: how to reunite, not how to become unitary!

It is no good harking back to the 1960 constitution and the creation of Cyprus as a precious little unitary republic to be preserved at all costs – as some Greek Cypriots do – because last time it all ended in tears. The truth is that a unitary state involving the Turkish Cypriots is not going to happen. As the ancients put it ‘you cannot step into the same river twice.’ Federation is therefore the least worst option.

Scraping the barrel, the rejectionists have now latched on to the ridiculous old chestnut that agreeing to a federation would somehow eradicate the status of Cyprus in international law, but as every first year student of international law knows, the status of Cyprus in international law is not engaged at all in matters of internal governance. In any case it is a fundamental principle of federal law that there is no right to secede. As for the virgin birth nonsense peddled in some circles on the Turkish side, it cannot stand up to a moment’s scrutiny by any one with basic knowledge of the principles of state succession.

But enough of matters juvenile! What should concern the leaders and their advisers is whether the prerequisites of a federation can be cultivated if they do not exist. The first is the desire by both core communities to be part of an independent federal government for some things but at the same time the desire to retain independent regional governments for other things.

Second, this dual desire must be matched by an ability to operate such a federal system.

The factors associated with a desire to unite under an independent federal government are security, prosperity and similarity in political and social institutions. Apparently, similar language religion and ethnicity are not essential, although they can be significant in producing a desire as well as the ability to make it work.



For Greek Cypriots security means first the departure of Turkish troops at present in northern Cyprus and the return of some territory under Greek Cypriot control. Secondly, it means the effective federal control of Cyprus’ borders. This is assuming more importance recently as the biggest threat to security in the region is from terrorism. Turkey is under internal attack from Islamic terrorists and her borders are porous. It is therefore extremely urgent that control of Cyprus’ border is brought under federal direction.

For Turkish Cypriots security lies in the fact that they are now all concentrated in one area rather than interspersed in enclaves throughout the island. In light of this, the Turkish side attaches huge importance to remaining the core community in northern Cyprus in any federal system, and the security they have acquired from that concentration is not negotiable.

I do not believe it is desirable or necessary to have security guarantees from Turkey for a number of reasons, not the least of them being that the situation in Turkey is not immutable, and the introduction of religion into political life there by President Recep Tayip Erdogan – away from the secular principles established by Ataturk – makes Turkey unsuitable as a guarantor power.

If there were a threat to Turkish Cypriot security, under a federal system the constituent state could be given power to request international assistance from other states, including Turkey, in accordance with the provisions of the UN Charter which authorises the use of force in self defence or defence of another.

In any event, the system of guarantees is obsolete. Guarantees were used when there was no collective security and no UN. Such guarantees, even if contained in treaties, would not legitimise military action not otherwise lawful under the UN Charter.

Most crucially, however, a Turkish military guarantee makes the Greek Cypriots feel very insecure and is thus contrary to the principle of cultivating the requisite desire in them for a federal system. You cannot set up a federation if the demands of your security would cause insecurity for the other constituent state. This too is not negotiable!



It is obvious that both sides will be better off once the problem goes. Military expenditure will be reduced, releasing millions that could then be used to set up a national health service, one of the most socially cohesive institutions known to man.

The Turkish Cypriots will have access to the EU internal market and be eligible for regional aid, and Cyprus will have a wider choice on how to exploit her gas reserves.

The jewel in the crown of any settlement however will be the re-development of Famagusta which will be enough to lift the economy of Cyprus out of the doldrums.

For the Turkish Cypriots the introduction of the euro will be a welcome relief from the ups and down of the Turkish lira.

However, in a federation the crucial question is not so much wealth creation but the distribution of wealth equitably between the constituent states and the federal government.

The modalities of distribution in a federation however are beyond the scope of this article. I do not foresee any insuperable problems other than the fact that bigger wealthier states tend to dominate in federations. There are however checks and balances in most federations that ensure that any imbalances that flow naturally from differences in size and wealth are kept to a minimum.


The desire for regional government within a federation

The desire to remain distinct is not going to be a problem at all. On the contrary each community has a strong attachment to its motherland culture. Indeed the problem is that the attachment to motherland culture is too strong and needs to be diluted to leave room for attachment to the federal republic. I think Cypriots are distinct from the people of their respective motherlands, and one can discern the glimmerings of a common identity. They are after all a small island people!


The ability to operate a federation

The desire to form a federation is crucial but not enough. The ability to make it work is also required. The most crucial factors going to ability apart from the desire to unite itself are common political and social institutions. Obviously a common language would be very helpful too.

English is so widely spoken and studied in Cyprus in both communities it counts as a common language. I believe the chances of operating a federal system would improve enormously if English were reinstated as the third official language as it used to be for a short while after independence.

Both sides have retained the common law of England so there should be no problem in assimilating their legal systems under a federal structure.

But the biggest and most cohesive political and social institution that the two sides will have in common once a federal system is up and running is the European legal order – the acquis communautaire.



Creating the right conditions for setting up a federation and making it work however requires above all a committed leadership with qualities of statesmanship not seen in Cyprus since the late President Glafcos Clerides lost power in 2003. On the other hand, President Nicos Anastasiades was his protege and has shown he feels an irresistible urge to please his old friend and mentor posthumously by reuniting Cyprus; which is why the election of Mustafa Akinci on the Turkish side has rekindled hope. But they both need to demonstrate conspicuous passion for the federal project.

Pierre Trudeau, the former prime minister of Canada, was a passionate believer in federalism. Here’s what he said about federal government in Canada:

‘The die is cast in Canada: there are two main ethnic and linguistic groups; each is too strong and too deeply rooted in the past, too firmly bound to a motherland culture, to be able to engulf the other. But if the two will collaborate at the hub of a truly pluralistic state, Canada could become the envied seat of a form of federalism that belongs to tomorrow’s world.’

Substitute Cyprus for Canada and his remarks apply to Cyprus beautifully.

But even after a settlement, the most important problem initially is going to be – as it is now – the availability of committed federalists with the expertise to make federation work. It will be necessary for a cadre of high flying civil servants from each constituent state to be trained together and develop an esprit de corps with total commitment to the federal cause.

Alper Ali Riza is a Queen’s counsel and part time judge in the UK. This article is based on a lecture the author gave to the Oxford University Society at the Poseidonia Hotel Limassol on Tuesday, November 10, 2015

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