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Our View: Why the timing is right for a Cyprus deal

BRITAIN’S Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said during his visit to Cyprus on Thursday “the stars are beginning to align”. He was speaking about the Cyprus peace efforts but tempered his optimism with a note of caution, adding that “there are some very challenging issues.” It was not the first time an outsider had used this metaphor. Most recently, the UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor Espen Barth Eide referred to it but nobody paid much attention, dismissing it as another example of diplomatic wishful thinking.

Hammond’s more prosaic comment about the talks on Thursday, that “there are lots of reasons why now is the right time to do this deal,” rang very true. In fact there have never been so many reasons, in the long history of the Cyprus problem, making this the right time for a deal. First and foremost, both communities are led by men, whose commitment to a settlement cannot be disputed and they are negotiating constructively, with a sense of unprecedented urgency, to tackle “the very challenging issues”, avoiding the poisonous blame game all their predecessors engaged in.

Turkey’s ruling AKP, which has consistently backed a deal, has secured another term in power and is fully behind the settlement effort, having sidelined the military establishment which may have opposed it. The Syriza government in Greece is also on board while Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu, whom he met in Ankara on Wednesday, both backed a deal. Davutoglu went as far as to say that “we have a common approach with Greece to contribute positively to the talks.”

A settlement would also be conducive to the resumption of Turkey’s EU accession negotiations, which Brussels now considers an imperative as it is the key to ensuring Ankara’s co-operation in the dealing with the refugee crisis. Cyprus has been blocking the opening of several chapters since 2009 but the EU has signalled its intention to open them, regardless, next year. This is an indication of how desperate Brussels is for Ankara’s co-operation in the tackling the refugee crisis; it has also offered the Turks billions of euro in aid and visa-free travel in the Union. As another sweetener for the settlement the EU wants, Hammond, whose visit here had been preceded by that of his German counterpart, also spoke about raising the “necessary finance to underpin that solution.”

NATO would also like to see a solution because the Cyprus problem has been preventing communication on security issues with the EU as Turkey has vetoed the passing of any military information to Brussels because it does not want Cyprus to have access to it. This obstacle placed by the Turks would be overcome if there is a deal, which would also end the long-standing rift between two NATO members – Greece and Turkey.

Then there is the big issue of energy, in which Cyprus could play a key role in the transfer of natural gas in the region. Israel, according to many reports, has decided to that the only market for its natural gas is Turkey and the cheapest way to get it there is by a pipeline that would pass through Cyprus. This why its officials have been talking about setting up the needed infrastructure jointly with Cyprus and there has even been talk about Egypt’s gas going to Turkey through this pipeline. Such co-operation would promote stability in the Eastern Mediterranean region and help mend relations between Israel and Turkey, the two main allies of the US in the area. It would also reduce Turkish dependence on Russian gas, another American objective.

The only country that may stand to lose from a settlement would be Russia as a federal Cyprus would fall under the influence of NATO. The Russian ambassador has stated publicly his country would oppose a deal guaranteed by NATO, a sentiment shared by AKEL, but he has also said that Moscow would support a deal that was acceptable to the people. The mending of relations between Moscow and the West, as they join forces to fight Islamic State, could also helpful.

How the people would react to a possible deal is the big question. The stars are aligning but unless the majority of people on both sides of the dividing line are persuaded to back the deal that is agreed another opportunity – most probably the last one – will be missed.

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