The hyperbole featured in reports about the Cyprus problem was often a source of amusement in the past. But there is no exaggeration in saying that the talks, which start in Mont Pelerin on Monday, will determine the future of Cyprus. These are make-or-break talks that will either pave the way for the next phase in the procedure – the multi-party meeting that would tie up the loose ends – or break down, bringing to an end the efforts for a settlement.
Speaking on television on Saturday morning, government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides insisted that failure to reach an agreement in Switzerland would not be the end of the road and talks would continue in Cyprus, but it is difficult to believe this. UN Special Advisor Espen Barth Eide, in private, says that he would go home if the Switzerland talks ended in deadlock, which is understandable. It would be absurd to resume talking about governance or EU affairs after the two sides failed to reach some form of understanding on territorial adjustments.
The fact is that time is also running out. We may never have agreed to any time-frames but Turkey’s President Erdogan has imposed his own end of the year deadline, a point made by President Anastasiades at last Sunday’s national council meeting. Erdogan, unlike the Greek Cypriot side, has a Plan B in the event there was no deal by the end of this year. In 2017 he has plans for a referendum on the status of the north – as had happened in Crimea – with a view to its annexation. It is as part of this Plan B Turkey has also signed a deal to supply electricity to the north; 26,000 citizenship applications by Turks, which had been put on hold because of the talks, would also be approved next year.
Success of the talks in Mont Pelerin would avert the pursuit of Plan B, but this success would not be easy to achieve for a number of reasons. Anastasiades had set himself the unrealistic target of securing the return of more territory than was given by the Annan plan, something that appears unrealistic 12 years later. Second, Mustafa Akinci would want to hold on to more territory now so as limit the number of Turkish Cypriots that would have to be moved from where they have been living.
Morphou is a prime example of the difficulties ahead. It would have been returned under the Annan plan and Anastasiades has said it was a red line for the Greek Cypriots, although he was careful not to repeat that in Friday’s television appearance. Since 2004 the Turkish side has made significant investments in Morphou and the residents would not hear of moving out so its return has become a red line for Akinci, who also avoided repeating it in his Friday night television appearance. This mutual show of restraint was a positive sign and indication there is mood for compromises.
Barth Eide’s challenge would be to propose compromises on a host of such issues, bearing in mind that territory is inextricably linked to the property issue. Greek Cypriots want territory so that a maximum number of refugees would return, while the Turkish Cypriots want territory so that a minimum number of people would have to move from where they had been living. While these are legitimate concerns, should they be allowed to block a deal, when unprecedented progress has been made on all other issues? Has Anastasiades explored how many refugees still living would rather be compensated than return to the villages they left 42 years ago? Has Akinci considered the compensation cost of holding on to too much territory, not to mention the resentment it would cause the other side?
The main objective in Switzerland would be to agree the criteria for territorial adjustments that would lead to the drafting of the eagerly-anticipated maps. Deciding the criteria does not necessarily mean there would be agreement on the adjustments but it would form a basis for negotiations. And nobody would be expecting the maps to be finalised as these are certain to be linked with issues of security and guarantees that would be discussed at a multi-party meeting, if there is one.
As all chapters are inter-linked it would be extremely difficult to close each one separately, even though all four (governance, economy, EU affairs, property) would be discussed again in Switzerland, before the two leaders move on to territory. Everything would be finalised at the multi-party conference, the next and last stage of the peace procedure, which will take place only if the Mont Pelerin negotiations yield positive results.
We all hope the meetings over the next five days will be constructive and productive because failure does not bear thinking about. Even the big smile it would put on the face of the rejectionists will not last long considering failure would activate Erdogan’s Plan B.